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The Mariners are stuck in the no-big-fly-zone

Julio keeps playing great defense, but the no-fly-zone has extended to the M’s bats as well.
Seattle Mariners on Twitter

Did you notice it’s cold still in the PNW? The Seattle Mariners surely have through their first 19 games.

Their hitters are running a .227/.304/.372 line with a 96 wRC+ thus far through 728 plate appearances, the same number Ichiro had in 2002 (he went .321/.388/.425 with a 118 wRC+, if you were curious). A 96 wRC+ implies the M’s have been merely a tick below-average at the dish thus far, which is mostly accurate. The frustrating thing of so many of these early losses has been that just a single additional hit in the right moment would have made the difference. An 0-4 record in extra inning affairs hammers that home, as does their 2-5 line in one-run games, a stark departure from their recent run of luck. The magnifying glass can be pointed many directions to uncover Seattle’s source for shoddy scoring so far, but the easiest culprit is among the most obvious: not enough home runs.

Homers are the most effective way of scoring runs, and doing so in bunches. Nobody has to sprint fast, nor find a spot the defense can’t snag it, nor trust the umpire to call a ball a ball. Last year, in spite of an offense that struggled to string hits together (28th in batting average), the M’s got on base at an average clip (16th in OBP) and, most importantly, did damage when they made contact, tying with the Cardinals for 9th in home runs in MLB. This year, heading into Friday’s games, while again low (25th) in batting average as to be expected, but more worryingly they are 24th in OBP and tied for 20th-23rd in homers with the Phillies, Rockies, and Marlins. This offense is designed, particularly in its heart, to cash in baserunners by driving the ball over the fence, and while the typical top six of the lineup pending platoon has done fairly well in this effort (Julio, France, Suárez, Raleigh, Teoscar, and Kelenic/Pollock), the entire rest of the roster has yet to leave the yard.

As I wrote this winter, T-Mobile Park is the hardest place to be a hitter in MLB once more, with the lone exception that it is not too tough to hit the ball all the way out of.

In essence, it’s incredibly difficult to get good results on contact in Seattle unless you hit it over the fence. Stellar line drive contact, which is still the ideal for getting singles, doubles, and triples, is more likely to turn into an out in Seattle than anywhere else. There’s a clear degree of randomness in a sample as small as three weeks this spring, and the M’s have played 13 of their 19 games at their chilly, damp home thus far, while their road trip to Cleveland featured similarly climate. They got unseasonably warm weather in Chicago, but have otherwise been frosted repeatedly, which slows the flight of the baseball more in Seattle than anywhere else in MLB, and will do so over the course of the season once again as the M’s will never have rainouts.

Pure luck and random variance are a major factor here, but it should be no surprise to see that Seattle’s xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average, a calculation that compares contact (exit velocity+launch angle) to all other recorded contact of that type and spits out the typical wOBA for such contact) far outstrips their actual wOBA, by a full 27 points. Their actual wOBA of .303 is comfortably below-average (roughly .320) while their expected rate is a healthy .330. In particular, Teoscar Hernández and his .359 xwOBA vs. a .290 actual stands out. This may not surprise you, given the loops of plays like this that are running in my head:

or, from the same game, on a breaking ball:

This exact hit is liable to be a flyout most places, but this quality of contact around 15 feet to the right or pulled in any capacity leaves the park. Kolten Wong, whose microscopic .151 wOBA is at least belied slightly by a .234 xwOBA, does not have the same measure of clear missed near-dingers, but he at least has explored the space, like on this 373 foot can of corn:

At this stage in the season, one or two big flies for either player would dramatically alter their lines thus far. The M’s struggles, then are heavily the consequence of the most obvious problem that has been discussed ad nauseum: the 7-8-9 (and really the 7-8, as J.P. Crawford has been an OBP monster despite minimal pop) not carrying their weight, but also that their quality performers have been slightly short of even higher quality.

Some of that won’t balance out - the Mariners have only outperformed their xwOBA in one year (2019) of the Statcast era. However, Wong and Hernández are better than the results they’ve gotten thus far, and even Eugenio Suárez is liable to see things balance out as things get warmer and the Mariners travel to more forgiving fields. Moreover, though the OBP issues are worrisome, one way to see your club’s walk rate rise is to see the percentage of your total games played against the elite Cleveland Guardians pitching staff (5th-lowest BB% in 2022, 3rd-lowest in 2023) drop from where it is at present, which is currently 36.8% of the M’s total schedule to date. For the M’s, it is going to require more from the DH and 2B positions specifically for everything else to fall into place, but they should see at least some better fortune if they can just aim some of their best contact a few feet towards where the fence is shallower.