About two weeks ago, I frog-marched everyone on staff to a Google doc and demanded they participate in a collab piece titled “how sustainable are these Mariners?” The piece was intended to publish fresh off the first, triumphant homestand, but then something changed. The Mariners started losing. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll just save this for when the losing skid ends and update all the numbers.” But then the losing skid skidded on. And on. And all the way across the country and back to T-Mobile, on and on and on.
How slowly things change in baseball at the macro level, and how quickly at the micro level. Ty France fell out of the top 10 of hitters by fWAR, and is at risk of falling out of the top 30. Tom Murphy, he of the 228 wRC+, got hurt and will be on the shelf for a while. Erik Swanson and Paul Sewald surrendered crushing home runs in key spots. Last night, Chris Flexen got lit up badly for the first time this season. The early-season honeymoon isn’t just over, the wedding announcement has been lit on fire and the rings have been melted down into brass knuckles.
But as the old saw goes, tough times don’t last, but tough people do, and there are none tougher than Mariners fans. It might not feel like it right now, but the Mariners will score runs again. They might even win some games, too. Just as those early-season numbers felt dangerously aloft at times, this current slump will even out, as well. Using expected statistics and underlying metrics, let’s look into where the luck-dragon arrow is pointing up, where it’s pointing down, and whose performance has so far been about on par with what we’d expect for the season.
Arrow pointing down:
I hate to say this, but last night’s performance, while a uniquely unfortunate matchup for Flexen, might not be the last stinker we’ll see from him. He’s currently outperforming his xwOBA by about 50 points while allowing a hard hit rate that’s about 10% higher than MLB average; batters are hitting the ball on average 93 MPH or greater against him, which is in the bottom tenth percentile of MLB. Flexen lives on a fairly narrow band of success that relies on getting weak contact; last year he was about average on giving up hard contact and very good at limiting barrels, which is something that hasn’t shown up yet this year. Unfortunately, barrel rate stabilizes relatively quickly, so he might remain stuck in the bottom quartile, a significant difference from last year, when he ranked in the upper quartile for barrels allowed.
But the most concerning data lives in Flexen’s individual pitch data, specifically on his offspeed pitches: he’s allowing a wOBA of .360 on the changeup, but the xwOBA on it is a staggering .495, and the curveball is an even starker difference at a wOBA of .150 vs. an xwOBA of .419. The curve Flexen uses more as a supplementary weapon, but the changeup was one of his best ways to get weak contact last year and roll double plays, and so far we haven’t seen as much of that. The changeup can be a notoriously tricky “feel” pitch, so maybe there’s happy news on the horizon yet, but so far, the underlying results haven’t been good, even as Flexen has admirably held opponents down while his teammates failed to score runs around him.
Just to be clear, this isn’t a slight against Frazier, but rather 2021 Frazier, if anyone still had expectations for him to hit over .300. The Adam Frazier of early April, he of the 122 wRC+, sadly does not live here anymore. In his place is almost-perfectly-league-average Adam Frazier, which in this current environment means a 103 wRC+ player. Frazier is underperforming a little in the batting average category, which stinks because that’s the category he’s supposed to be good at, although his xBA of .263 is right in line with the league’s of .252.
I know! You look at Marco’s sliders on Statcast and they look even worse than Flexen’s, so how can he be holding steady? By being terrible from the jump, that’s how. Marco has an expected slugging number of .604, which is clearly unsightly. But the thing is, Marco’s expected numbers and actual numbers are all terrible. Are batters going to slug .700 on his curveball for the rest of the season? They will not. Specifically, Marco is dealing with an inflated HR/FB number right now of almost 25% as well as an abnormally high walk rate. Marco might not be the pitcher he was even in 2020 anymore, but he’s not a -.6 fWAR pitcher. Don’t expect the Marco who pitched at the top of Seattle’s rotation for all these years, but the thrashing he took to start the season should be the exception going forward more than the rule.
France is on a bit of rough road right now, but it’s just the pendulum swinging back after he was scorching hot—like top 10 in all of baseball—to begin the season. It stinks because without Ty hitting, the lineup isn’t hitting, and oh boy, is Ty not hitting right now—he’s got a cool 52 for a wRC+ over the past week. But we know that Ty France has hit, and will hit again, and probably even better than we’ve seen him hit before as he rounds into his prime baseball-bashing years. The arrow is literally pointing up here, so I guess I should put him into the arrow up category, but really, we’ll be happy when Ty France just gets back to being Ty France.
You could argue Suárez belongs up with Adam Frazier in the “coming back to Earth” category, but Suárez’s power numbers are so gaudy and exciting, he at least belongs here with a recognition that, like many power hitters, he will be streaky and go through slumps—like the one he’s in now—and strike out a lot. But I will absolutely take an xSLG of .538 as a tradeoff for the 30% K rate, especially when paired with a well above league average walk rate. Our very own three true outcomes king!
This one depends heavily on the eye test, so feel free to skip it if that’s not your jam. Ray has just as tough a row to hoe with expected statistics as Marco and Flexen, himself being the beneficiary of a 40-point gap between the expected and actual slugging on his slider. In none of his early-season starts has he looked like the ace Mariners fans thought they were getting this year. However, his latest outing against the Rays offered some hope. Ray recorded 15 swing and misses that day, with 10 of them coming on the slider for a CSW% of 34% on that pitch. Meanwhile, his fastball velocity also perked up in that outing, all the way to an average of 92.9 with a max of 95. In contrast, when he faced the Royals in April—an ostensibly better game for him than the one against Tampa, as he gave up fewer runs and the Mariners won—the fastball velocity was averaging about half a tick slower, at 92.5 (max 94), and he only recorded a CSW% of 26% on the slider. Also, remember how earlier we were saying barrels stabilize quickly? Ray is right about at league average, which is actually a tremendous improvement on where he ranked last year. Ray might not reach the Cy Young heights of last year, but he’s almost certainly better than what he’s showed early on here.
The poster child for positive regression. Fun fact, Winker’s wRC+ in May is all the way up to 120 with an ISO of .176. I gotta say, I was pretty worried when I wrote the “Jesse Winker’s luck can’t continue to be this bad” article and he responded by literally lining into a triple play a day later, but well played, baseball gods, now please give Jesse a break.
This was a pleasant surprise, as just two weeks ago we had Toro in the negative column, with Jacob noting that Toro had come out of his mechanics quite a bit, with his whiff and strikeout rates having gone up, and he wasn’t hitting the solid line drives that we saw from him last year. But Toro has rebounded back to the “impossible to strike out” category, and while his average remains stuck in the .160s, his xBA is a much more Toro-like .262. He’s also getting hosed pretty hard on xSLG: .494 vs. .354. He’s also rebounded on his line drive rate to a respectable 15.5%, although we’d love to see him focus more on those rather than hitting the ball in the air, which he’s doing over half the time. Still, things are looking up in Toro Time.
Here is one place where the old Google doc actually still applies, with a thank you to Zach Mason, who simply replied with this image when asked how sustainable it is that Julio would continue to strike out 35% of the time:
Actually, since we started working on this piece, Julio’s strikeouts are down to a hair under 32%, and he’s fresh off a three-hit night with two especially satisfying line drives. He’s moved up to hitting third in the lineup and has been one of the few bright spots as the team’s been going down this tough stretch of road. If we are forced to endure watching some bad baseball for a while longer, well, at least we have Julio to watch.