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About Last Night: The Flexen Dejection

Luck of the draw only draws the unlucky

Chris Flexen reflects in the dugout Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Violet Jessop was a mariner. An Argentinian born to Irish immigrants in the 1880s, she spent her childhood taking care of her younger siblings, three of whom died. She herself survived a bout of tuberculosis, back when that was a thing that would almost definitely kill you, shortly before her dad died. When her mother too became ill, Jessop became a stewardess aboard the RMS Olympic, the largest luxury liner of its day. On September 20, 1911, the Olympic collided with a British naval ship. She suffered the death of her siblings and father, tuberculosis, and a boat crash. Violet Jessop was a mariner, but not a lucky one.

That makes her not unlike Chris Flexen, who’s got a perfectly reasonable 4.24 ERA over his first seven starts this year, but has garnered just seven runs of support during those starts. Have you been frustrated by the 2022 Mariners’ offense? Try talking to Chris Flexen. Last night, Flexen gave up three over five and a third, and the Mariners could only muster two runs behind him.

I’ll repeat: seven starts, seven runs of support. In his first start of the year, the Mariners got shut out by Minnesota. In his second start of the year, the Mariners got shut out by Houston. In his fifth start of the year, the Mariners got shut out by Houston. Again. In his sixth start of the year, the Mariners got shut out by Philadelphia. That’s four shutouts in seven starts. Despite doing exactly what you hire Chris Flexen to do—limit hard contact, eat innings (he’s lasting an inning more per game than the average starter), give the offense a chance to win—Flex has gotten tagged with six losses in his seven starts. Remember that time he was cruising against Tampa and then an easy-out groundball deflected off his foot, which scored a run, Tampa’s second in a game that ended 2-1? It’s been tough to watch.

Chris Flexen is the only starter in MLB who is averaging one run of support per start or less. It’s a phenomenon that Mariners fans are all too familiar with, having watched Félix Hernández’s prime wasted away in the futility of 1-0 losses followed by 2-1 losses. Félix had 45 starts in his career in which he allowed one or zero runs and yet didn’t get a win. This, and Flexen’s early going, are the kind of examples that people use when they argue that pitcher wins and pitcher losses don’t mean anything. And I mostly agree with that, except that they matter to the pitchers themselves. Maybe that’s irrational, but have you ever had someone try to talk you out of thinking that something you care about matters? Let’s not forget that the pitchers are people, and if we’re their fans, we should care about how they feel.

Violet Jessop cared about how people felt. After her string of bad luck, things seemed to be looking up for her when she got to work on a ship that didn’t have a history of crashes, a brand new ship, in fact: the RMS Titanic. While Billy Zane was passing off a child as his own to con his way into a lifeboat, Jessop was staying aboard the ship to demonstrate for the non-English speaking passengers how to put on their life vests, and eventually cared for an actually abandoned infant on a lifeboat.

Run support is essentially random. Chris Flexen bears no responsibility for the fact that the offense scored eight runs on Sunday but only two on Monday. But he looks sad about it, as if he’s been cursed by the baseball gods. But if I had the chance to comfort him like Sergio Romo did, I’d remind him that he’s been doing everything he’s been asked to do. He was bad for his whole career with the Mets; despite being considered a better prospect than Jacob DeGrom, he ran an RA/9 over 8 and ran himself out of town. But after he established himself in the KBO in 2020, he’s been exactly as advertised for Seattle, with an RA/9 under 4. That’s all we wanted out of him. Here’s what Mikey wrote when the signing was announced:

And so, it remains to be seen how the Mariners plan to deploy Flexen. Out of the rotation, he’s plenty interesting. Out of the bullpen, Flexen could be quite good. It would be disingenuous to suggest that he can be Gallen or Lugo, so I don’t want anyone to come away thinking that. And it’s pretty likely that he’ll be far from the pitcher he was in 2020. At the very least, however, he’s more interesting than whoever his replacement would be in the rotation or bullpen. And that’s enough for me.

Violet Jessop’s lifeboat was one of those rescued by the Carpathia. And she maintained a stiff upper lip about sea travel because she had to. When humanity was fighting its first world war, Jessop wanted to help its victims, and so she served in the Red Cross. In 1916, she was sailing aboard the HMHS Britannic when it was either attacked by a war ship or hit an underwater mine; historical accounts differ. As the ship sank, the propellors continued to spin, sucking in and shredding the lifeboats. Jessop had to abandon her lifeboat and struck her head on the keel of the ship, sustaining a fracture of the skull: something she would only discover years after the fact when she went to her doctor complaining of persistent headaches. Nevertheless, she continued to serve as a mariner.

Flexen’s going to have to maintain a stiff upper lip, too. What Mikey wrote about Flexen 18 months ago is still true, and the fact that the offense is saving their runs for Gonzales and Gilbert doesn’t change that. If you calculate his pythagorean record using Flexen’s xFIP (4.20) and the Mariners’ average number of runs scored per game (3.92), the Mariners ought to be 3-4 in Flexen’s starts, not 1-6. However the pitcher credit would get apportioned, Flexen wouldn’t have six losses. It’s just a tough go of things, and he should stay positive about his process. A .466 winning percentage out of your number four starter is fine. Playoff teams do that.

Even though the Mariners scored two runs last night whereas they’d been shut out in four of Flexen’s first five starts, last night was the point where this started to feel less like small sample luck and more like a trend. It’s not, but we kind of have to consciously remind ourselves of that because it no longer feels like it’s a coincidence. So that’s my point. Do that conscious reminding. Hopefully Chris Flexen will too because this can’t go on forever. After all, Violet Jessop, who endured three shipwrecks in five years, earning her the nickname “Miss Unsinkable,” ended up living to age 83, long enough to see man walk on the moon. A mariner’s luck can change, and even if it doesn’t, they can remain unsinkable.