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About Last Night: Preparation, spoiled luck, and second-guessing

Monday night provided another perfect storm of the Mariners’ surprising plans leading to expected outcomes.

Seattle Mariners v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The Seattle Mariners are now 1-4 in one-run games, territory they’ve scarcely occupied in recent memory. Throughout the entire Jerry Dipoto era, the Mariners are a statistical marvel, a club that won “coin flip games” 57.3% of the time between 2016-2022. Not only has Seattle played the most one-run games in that time (330, compared to a median of 283 and a bottom of 254), but they have the best winning percentage of any MLB club in that seven year stretch, with their .573 clip equivalent to a 92.8 win pace over a full season. Only twice has Seattle finished under .500 in these tight tilts - the abbreviated 2020 season (7-8) and the first “step back” season of 2019 (23-26). You have to hearken back to 2014 to find the last time Seattle was truly poor in these games that are ostensibly a 50/50 gambit in aggregate, to hear Pythagoras tell it.

This is fortunate, but it’s also a source of some knocks on the M’s, that while they’ve typically boasted a quality bullpen that can help them hold onto a few more tight games than the average club, that is not (as 2014 can show) the totality of it, and random variance plays a role. So while Jeff Passan’s December proclamation that Mariners fans were “spoiled and greedy” for expecting the club to invest on or even approaching par with most other contenders coming off the thrill of their drought-busting playoff run continues to age like a salmon left out on the counter since Opening Day, there is something to the idea that Mariners fans have grown spoiled and greedy - at least when it comes to expecting victory in tight games like those they dropped on Sunday and Monday.

Plenty unifies both losses. The Mariners did not play poorly in either, and while there are individual moments in each game where better execution might’ve yielded better results, that is not what I am most concerned with. This is a focus on process, and in many stages to my mind there have been laudable processes in situations with difficult choices. Scott Servais can only play the 26 players he has each day, using who is healthy and available. His choice to burn the DH in Sunday’s game with the Cleveland Guardians after taking a 3-1 lead struck me as sensible: placing speedy veteran Teoscar Hernández in the outfield over defensively inert pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella was not without risk, but it fit the bill of striving to win the game in nine innings. Perhaps Sam Haggerty makes the play on the crushed ball on the warning track that Hernández could not corral—I am not going to fight that battle with you one way or another, but I did not mind the move. [Ed. note: I did mind the move, and John already had to hear me complain about it, as I put on my “20-20 hindsight” glasses and refused to take them off, so cut him a break in the comments, please. -Kate]

Similarly, Servais did his damndest as he has for multiple years, particularly in the early weeks of the season, to ensure his bullpen maintained their stamina for the long haul over grinding his highest leverage players into dust. Justin Topa, Gabe Speier, and J.B. Bukauskas have been asked to deliver higher leverage innings earlier in this season than anyone inside or outside of the organization (and their immediate families and loved ones) would’ve hoped, and two-thirds of that trio have met the moment with aplomb! But with a bullpen that is thinner than years prior due to injuries, inconsistency, and offseason deals, Seattle’s margin for error is thinner than it was by the end of 2022. While Brash was not his sharpest on Sunday, he did in general exactly what could be hoped for on Monday night, striking out the first hitter, then running to two strikes and eliciting fleetingly weak contact from an elite contact hitter in Nico Hoerner (11.0% strikeout rate [min. 500 PAs] in 2022, 6th-lowest in MLB!) that unfortunately dropped in to be enough to score the speedy Nick Madrigal, and would have done so regardless of if Madrigal advanced to third. Herein, however, lies one frustration, a classic endeavor in Monday Tuesday Morning Quarterbacking that you’ll just have to trust me I was questioning preemptively as well: why was Brash pitching to Hoerner at all?

It’s a simple question with several layers of answer. He was pitching to Hoerner because his stuff is so nasty the club hoped he could fool the Steven Kwan of the NL Central. Perhaps he was pitching to Hoerner because Dansby Swanson loomed behind him, off to a torrid start and speedy enough to make a double play no easy enterprise, particularly against Brash, who is not typically a groundball-inducer in any case. And yet, much like Sunday’s game, it seemed the club opted to put their pitcher in the most difficult situation with the game on the line, like allowing Penn Murfee to face Josh Bell instead of loading the bases to create a force at the plate, or Brash to face the rare type of contact-oriented player he may struggle to befuddle in a moment where almost any contact is fatal instead of the brilliant but whiff-prone Swanson (26.0% K-rate in 2022).

Perhaps Brash was pitching to Hoerner because the M’s had failed to score in the top of the frame, squandering the ghost runner by opting to tell J.P. Crawford to give away an out against a pitcher with who walks over 4 batters per 9 innings, and far higher against lefties. The bunt was one of the earliest ideae non grata of the sabermetric movement, in part because it is one of the most mathematically simple calculations to understand. Specific context and game state will always matter, but over the entirety of the course of baseball history, in every possible situation a sacrifice bunt reduces the average amount of runs the bunting team scores. Those totals hold up just as well in modern baseball as they do in any era. Servais has spoken about the club’s strategy with bunting, and it is referenced on the broadcast every so often, that they will generally avoid bunting in extra innings when on the road (as they do not know how many runs they’ll need to win) but will bunt when at home in a tie game (which is the one appropriate context, as bunting slightly improves the chances of scoring a single run). With an exhausted, thinned bullpen, having just seen Keegan Thompson uncompetitively walk Cooper Hummel, with the corners of the infield pulled in significantly, begging for one of Crawford’s typical soft-to-medium power-slapped grounders or lofted bloops, he was instead bid to deliver one out to the Cubs on purpose.

That he did so particularly poorly was exasperating, but entirely inconsequential. Even a successful sacrifice would have, at least as the inning played out, yielded no runs for the Mariners, as Seattle’s next three plate appearances rendered the outcome identical: walk to load the bases, K, K. Again, I write this in part at the behest of the staff, amidst whom I was gnashing teeth and rattling chains before and throughout the situation, not merely with the benefit of hindsight. It is frustrating not merely because things worked out poorly, but because the club went against their typical, more historically sound strategy, and were delivered their comeuppance so unmistakably.

Ultimately, however, the true answer is most frustrating of all - Brash was pitching to Hoerner because he was asked, like the pitching staff and the bullpen, to continue to weave the same magic they’ve managed for most of the past 7+ seasons. Seattle’s underwhelming start thus far is a combo of, essentially, a bit worse cluster luck than last year offensively and the bullpen that is presently more average than elite. When folks were so gauchely clamoring all offseason for a significant investment from the organization to improve the lineup, whether intentionally or not, they were seeing the league-leading 67 wins in one-run games over the last two years that hid within the thrilling but obfuscatory “back-to-back 90-win seasons” we both appreciate and held skepticism towards.

Every plate appearance that is La Stella, Haggerty, Wong, Hummel, et al, even as they are players with capability and utility, is an extra layer of strain placed on the rotation and bullpen to continue holding up their end of the bargain, and on the stars of the lineup to carry the club on their shoulders. Those stretches will come, and Seattle won’t be 24th in MLB in home runs for long, but a team with postseason expectations must be scrutinized against other playoff contenders, and every game takes on a greater stress and importance. For them to find another 14-game winning streak this season would be sublime. For them to not be at a trail marker, toying with a path to relying on such a thing would be better, because we cannot expect the same one-run brilliance this year. All winter, the Mariners believed their standing pat approach would be enough to replicate and improve upon last year’s performance. Instead, through two weeks, they’ve validated each and every cause for concern that it’s not the fans who are spoiled, but an organization that’s spoiling their opportunity.