The Mariners could theoretically salvage the month of May from being a total installment of Disasterpiece Theatre, and are off to a good start following last night’s narrow win over the Athletics, but let’s be honest: the team has been playing well below expectations over this month. Doing some good ol-fashioned WPA (Win Probability Added) back-of-napkin math, I looked at the last 19 losses incurred by the Mariners—dating from the end of that heady home series and sweep of the Royals—to try to get at a broad sense of where, exactly, the team is underperforming, and what has been done about it and is yet to be done about it.
In many ways, this article is a much less-sophisticated version of the one Jake did recently examining the Mariners’ offensive underperformance and cluster luck, which gives you a good broad overview of where the Mariners stand and how they got there. If you haven’t read that, what are you waiting for, go do that first, then come back here for a more granular look and also, everyone’s favorite part: the assigning of blame.
The offense: 55% of the blame
In the 19 games I looked at, I felt comfortable assigning the loss to the offense, based on WPA, in 10 games. Well, actually 10 and 1⁄3. although we’ll get back to that later. Some games were easy to assign blame for, like the back-to-back shutouts against the Astros, but the offense also pretty clearly sunk the team in games where they scored just two or three runs despite strong pitching performances from their starters. What’s worse is that, while the offense is frequently out of sync with their starters, they’re also out of sync with themselves, with lackluster performances canceling out would-be heroic performances from other members of the lineup. Look no further than Sunday’s loss for an example of that: Adam Frazier’s +.419 WPA in that game, virtually unheard of among the 2022 Mariners, was all but canceled out by J.P. Crawford’s -.404, hitting just two spots away from Frazier in the lineup. And they’re not even consistent about who plays hero and who plays goat, either; Jesse Winker’s star turn in the Mets game (.357 WPA) was met with a -.240 from the normally not-a-black-hole Frazier, who went 0-for-5 that day (of course, the offense wound up not being the overall goat of that specific game, but we’ll get to that).
There’s been some scrambling as the team looks to replace Jarred Kelenic in the outfield as he gets a re-set in Tacoma. While Taylor Trammell is up for now, he hasn’t had much playing time this year after an early-season injury; recently-signed Justin Upton will likely take over in right once he’s brought up to speed. Kyle Lewis will hopefully be able to provide some oomph out of a strictly DH spot, but it’s better to hope than expect immediate production. It’s unlikely, however, that any recent addition or stopgap measure will truly replace the consistent offense Mitch Haniger brought, so look for this to be a continued area of struggle.
It brings me no joy to report that J.P. Crawford has regressed of late in the way we feared. While his overall numbers still look good, J.P. is down to an 87 wRC+ for the month of May after his torrid April, and since coming back from missing a couple of games due to back spasms after awkwardly sliding into first, things are even more grim: a slash line of just .200/.233/.250 with a 45 wRC+. His on-base ability has taken a hit too over the past couple weeks, with a BB% of just 2.3% against a very un-J.P.-like strikeout rate of almost 28%. J.P. has never struck out at the rate in his career, so this is just an unpleasant stretch for the Mariners’ shortstop, but it’s coming at a time when the team is having trouble stringing together anything consistent offensively.
But in brighter news, there has been a very big change for the positive in the performance of Julio Rodríguez. After stumbling some out of the gate, which is reflected in some of those early losses from this losing stretch, Julio has made massive improvements; after his last bad game (-.200 WPA) on May 5, he’s up to a 165 wRC+ for the remainder of the month, cutting his strikeouts almost in half from where they were at the beginning of the season, while maintaining a solid walk rate (note: these numbers don’t yet include his two-hit, solo HR performance from last night, so expect that number to climb). Since May 6-on, he’s slashing a spectacular .339/.379/.500 (again, not including yesterday), and once he starts getting the ball off the ground and over the infielders’ heads more regularly, look for that slugging number to go up to match his prodigious speed. He’s still a young player and shouldn’t be counted on to carry this offense; he couldn’t solve Michael Wacha in the second game of the Boston series when the pitching staff floundered, racking up a -.135 WPA with no hits, but as it stands, depend on him the Mariners must.
The pitching: Starters (25%); Bullpen (19%)
I assigned the starting pitching five and 1⁄3 losses, and the bullpen three and 1⁄3 losses, which includes splitting a loss between the starting pitching and bullpen when both were pretty equally lousy—that would be the opening game of the Boston series, when both the starter (Kirby) and the bullpen stunk in almost-equal measure, although more on that particular game later. Remember I said we’d get to that one-third? That’s because there has been one (1) ;oss where the blame was blame distributed pretty equally: the loss against the Mets that probably should have been a win but the team made too many mistakes to come away with it, or as it pops up in Jake’s data, a “hard-luck loss.” Other than that, it’s been pretty clearly one side or the other letting the Mariners down as the team has struggled to get in sync. And while we might have an outsized idea of the bullpen contributing to losses due to some crushing late homers given up by the ‘pen—Muñoz and Sewald combined had a WPA of -1.049 in that Friday night loss against Tampa Bay when Kelenic should have gotten to be the hero, which is uniquely, impressively bad—they really haven’t been the problem over this losing skid, no matter how it feels.
To be fair, however, outside of a few blow-ups, neither has the starting pitching. Also, there are three games where WPA said the team lost because of starting pitching, but the offensive performance was so lackluster there wasn’t much hope of winning the games anyway. Two of them came in the Phillies series: the Flexen start where they got shut out 9-0 (a blowup, but also a shutout) and the “one bad pitch by Logan Gilbert” game that sunk them 4-2. Technically those losses belong to the starting pitching, but in Gilbert’s case, especially, the gap was very narrow between the poor starting pitching performance (-.306) and the offensive performance (-.257). Similarly, in the game against Houston on 5/4, a 2-7 loss, the Astros may have hung four runs on Matt Brash (-.278), but the offense’s total WPA of -.193 (Julio had the highest WPA of that game, at .021; J.P. had .01, and everyone else was neutral or negative) meant the offense wasn’t exactly pulling their fair share. I guess they can get in sync, when it comes to stinking.
The biggest change in the pitching staff over this month has been swapping out Matt Brash for George Kirby. It’s been a rough go for Kirby as he adjusts to the majors after having one of the truly most jacked-up developmental timelines in recent memory, but his full arsenal of pitches give him more weapons to potentially fall back on and fake-it-till-you-make-it at this level. Meanwhile, the bullpen has continued to scuffle as they’ve taken injury hit after injury hit; Penn Murfee has arrived as a potentially stabilizing force, but only after the loss of one of their better relievers in Erik Swanson. The bullpen hasn’t been called on particularly heavily in leverage situations given the team’s general allergy to holding a lead, but while the hope is for the starting pitching to continue to hold steady or even improve, there’s a strong potential here for things to get worse.
Scott Servais: 1%
Servais gets 1% of the blame for the boo-boo where he thought he could take out Kirby after the latter threw warm-up pitches, which he claims was a momentum-changing shift that impacted the game, in some truly admirable sword-falling-on. Maybe so, but it was George Kirby who served up the double, having already surrendered two homers to Trevor Story, and Sergio Romo is a veteran who at this point has seen it all, and maybe if the game had been lost by one run, this would be a conversation. The Fire Servais calls are among the most baffling to me because just last year we were talking about him as a candidate for Manager of the Year. It’s a poor carpenter who blames his tools, but there’s a difference between that and the Mariners handing Servais a bullpen made out of a Fisher-Price My First Tools set and asking him to invent some back-of-the-game wins.
Jerry Dipoto: ????% of the blame
“How long of a leash does Dipoto get?” is another common refrain among the great dissatisfied, and I get it. He’s the face of the rebuild, the architect, and where other sassy-n-brassy GM types have succeeded in their rebuilding projects, he is, so far, failing. But he’s failing after going through years of ownership’s requests to win with the players already assembled (2016-18 or 21 if you want to lump Kyle Seager in there), to go for Fire Sale Lite instead of full fire sale; he’s failing, maybe in quotation marks, two years in to seeing His Guys, the players his regime drafted and developed, make it to the bigs. But because of this weird hybrid approach, some key players currently here now—Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales, J.P. Crawford, even Adam Frazier and Eugenio Suárez and Jesse WInker—are win-now pieces that he does take the responsibility for putting in a Seattle uniform, as he does for other acquisitions that were supposed to get this team over the hump (remember the Ryon Healy Experience, anyone?).
But that’s also where things get tricky. Frazier, Winker and Suárez were Seattle’s big position player pickups this off-season, as the Mariners dedicated themselves to J.P. Crawford at shortstop, handing him a significant—but admittedly paltry compared to the salary commanded by the biggest free agents—contract extension. Mariners fans have been told endlessly about how the Mariners made a strong bid for Trevor Story, who spent the last series acting like the Mariners offered him a free Tuft and Needle mattress in his Lake City walk-up apartment and internship credit this off-season. Is this team Dipoto’s design or Dipoto doing the best he can when ownership hands him a Chopped basket containing a player acquired for salary relief, a TJ survivor, and some BABIP right at the point of turning and demands a 90-win team out of it? Unfortunately, those kinds of conversations happen behind closed doors, while the best we can do is squint at the black box data and try to reconstruct what’s happening in those rooms we don’t have access to. And that’s why...
Mariners ownership: Any amount of blame you want to give them
One of the many perks of being ownership is you don’t have to walk off the field after a loss, stop at your locker, and explain to a bunch of people with bright lights trained on your face what went wrong or where you failed. You don’t have to answer questions about why the team with the longest active playoff drought in North American pro sports looks positioned to continue that drought. You don’t have to open your books to show what you budgeted to spend on this team and what you were truly prepared to spend, and there are no websites that keep track of how much WPA you added or took away with those decisions. So assign blame here, and to Dipoto above, as you see fit. It’s your blame and you can do whatever you want with it. Just not...
You, the fan: 0% of the blame
Sometimes the experience of watching this team feels like volunteering to walk blindfolded across a yard of rakes, or act as a human ramp at the skateboard park, which can engender some icky, self-loathing feelings. Why do I subject myself to this, you wonder, sticking your wet finger in the electric socket yet again. It is important to remember the team’s failures are not your failures, you are not a curse if you turn the game on and the Mariners immediately cough up the lead or if they only lose when you go to the games, and you’re not a dum-dum pop for believing/hoping/believing this team could be good.
And really, they still could be; this would not be the first time we’ve seen the Mariners play lousy baseball for a stretch and then suddenly reverse their fortunes like it’s Act III of a Shakespearean comedy. Hopefully next time this article publishes, it will be an argument doling out credit instead of blame.