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The Mariners are hitting the fastball, but teams aren’t giving it to them

They are in it to win it but their opponents are in it to spin it.

MLB: APR 25 Mariners at Phillies Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The recent strides made by the Seattle Mariners in player development have come heavily around controlling the zone and dominating fastballs on both sides of the ball. “Control the Zone” is a lovely bit of athletic rallying fluff, because it can be made to match most anything, and still offer a consistent message for players and coaches to understand. So after a few years of improving offensive performance, albeit overly reliant on sequencing and clutch moments, with the pitching staff flourishing as one of the league’s best, it has been exasperating to watch an offense that has the potential to be above-average be miserably, contact-less-ly mediocre. On occasion the obvious articles don’t get written because they feel so self-evident; the Mariners strike out too much, but strike out plenty of opponents. But how that is happening is distinct.

Lance Lynn’s 16 strikeout performance against the M’s was a flash point for an offense that has had consistently disappointing performances all year despite some hints of positive strides. This Mariners team entered Wednesday’s game with the Yankees with the 2nd-highest strikeout rate in MLB at 25.9%, a solid three ticks above the league average and trailing only the Joey Gallo-employing Minnesota Twins who are in a record-setting stratosphere at 27.3% that would beat the previous full-season record of the 2021 Cubs at 26.7% (and matches the 58-game 2020 season Detroit Tigers). By constrast, these Mariners are merely on pace to be 7th in MLB history in strikeout rate (10th including three 2020 clubs), which would be a grim club record.

Seattle’s strikeouts are up for a number of reasons. League-wide, of course, whiffs abound due to a myriad factors, led by immense league-wide pitching talent and strides in development, aggressive reliever use that coincides with and enhances max effort pitching for record velocity and movement from the 1st through the 13th arm in the pen. For Seattle to stand out, though, is indicative of the club attempting to build a team that can excel at their home stadium. T-Mobile Park is a sea-level pitcher’s paradise where games are never rained/snowed out, meaning it plays host to chillier average temperature than anywhere else in MLB. Its wraparound design blocks much of the potential for swirling winds, while its outfield layout is smooth and predictable, ensuring it is the hardest place to land hits in play, hit triples, and otherwise score runs unless you hit the ball over the fence. As a result, the M’s have constructed a club with several players whose offensive contribution leans towards getting on base and clobbering the ball over the fence at the expense of other contact, which looks exceptionally ugly when the big flies aren’t flying, especially with runners on.

To facilitate that three-true-outcome approach, the Mariners have embodied the advice Mitch Haniger gave to Cal Raleigh last year that Raleigh credited with helping him break out as a star hitter in 2022: “you’re a fastball hitter, just hunt the fastball.” Seattle is among the best fastball-hitting teams in baseball, which we can quantify if we look at both the FanGraphs and Statcast data on pitch value. By Statcast data, the M’s have the 8th-most weighted runs created on fastballs as an offense in MLB, and the 7th-highest per 100 fastballs. Both J.P. Crawford and Jarred Kelenic have been comfortably among the best in baseball at doing damage to four-seamers, while only one full-time regular, ironically Raleigh, has been well below-average. Sinkers have also been feasted on by Kelenic, and Raleigh has made up much of that lost ground on them as well. They’re more middle-of-the-pack on changeups, but it doesn’t take more than a few games of watching these M’s for someone to identify where Seattle is getting crushed.

Sliders are decimating Seattle’s offense. Nearly a quarter of pitches the M’s are seeing have been sliders, good for 6th-most in MLB. While many clubs are far worse hitting sliders than heaters, there are some teams creating positive outcomes on the pitches, see: Rangers, Texas. In Seattle’s case, unfortunately, they have been exposed for the 4th-worst runs created on sliders, for a whiff rate that is among the league’s highest as well. Sliders and sweepers are the best pitches in baseball right now, generating the highest whiff rates and putting hitters everywhere in knots, but Seattle has been particularly susceptible, and teams have noticed. The Mariners have received 45.3% non-fastballs this year, the 8th-highest rate in the league, and that ticks up to 53.7% and 5th if you flip cutters over to the breaking ball side of the ledger.

2023 Batting Numbers on All Pitches Excluding 4-Seamers & Two-Seamers/Sinkers

Team Non-4S/SI Pitches % of Total Pitches BA wOBA xwOBA Run Value
Team Non-4S/SI Pitches % of Total Pitches BA wOBA xwOBA Run Value
SEA 5691 53.7 0.198 0.259 0.280 -39.9
KC 5588 53.7 0.219 0.272 0.294 -36.9
OAK 5511 50.6 0.202 0.264 0.276 -34.9
CLE 5077 49.0 0.232 0.271 0.283 -34.6
MIA 5289 49.8 0.240 0.286 0.293 -26.3
TOR 5585 50.4 0.234 0.292 0.304 -22.4
DET 5469 51.3 0.229 0.275 0.288 -21.4
CWS 6025 56.7 0.219 0.268 0.268 -18.6
WSH 5469 54.1 0.229 0.273 0.279 -16.5
COL 5667 51.5 0.236 0.286 0.281 -16.1
MIN 5912 53.6 0.211 0.284 0.291 -12.3
PIT 5468 52.2 0.215 0.285 0.290 -10.1
NYM 5158 48.8 0.212 0.278 0.294 -10.0
CIN 5584 50.0 0.222 0.273 0.263 -9.1
MIL 5845 54.2 0.217 0.278 0.278 -7.0
PHI 5493 50.3 0.243 0.304 0.301 -5.8
NYY 5577 54.3 0.215 0.279 0.293 -5.3
SD 5630 51.4 0.226 0.291 0.285 -5.2
HOU 5554 52.3 0.229 0.289 0.288 -4.2
SF 5689 50.8 0.223 0.297 0.294 3.0
BAL 5675 53.1 0.232 0.297 0.306 6.6
STL 5805 53.4 0.244 0.306 0.308 6.7
AZ 5580 51.0 0.235 0.296 0.280 7.5
CHC 5806 50.7 0.244 0.308 0.305 18.5
LAA 5769 50.7 0.252 0.319 0.304 23.7
LAD 5837 52.3 0.235 0.315 0.312 25.3
TB 5986 53.4 0.249 0.313 0.303 32.1
BOS 5793 51.7 0.250 0.309 0.303 38.7
ATL 5651 51.8 0.249 0.328 0.340 40.9
TEX 5723 51.1 0.270 0.332 0.318 76.1
Data prior to games 6/21/2023 Baseball Savant/FanGraphs

If you prefer your grim tidings with some more visual flair, I’ve got you.

Seattle is getting eaten alive by breaking balls, and the reality is it’s hard to fully solve this issue. It’s not as though the club has a horrific approach, though individual players or moments may stand out. They are squarely middle of the pack when it comes to swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone, which is typically a decent corollary for bad outcomes. However, the M’s are 28th in contact rate, as only the Athletics and the aforementioned Twins whiff more when they swing the bat. In other words, if this has felt particularly too prevalent this year, you’re correct.

On the pitching side of things, fastballs continue to bear fruit, as only three teams have thrown more heaters and just one - Minnesota again - has created more run value on a rate basis or total. But the M’s don’t get to hit against themselves, and unless they can set up some Zonai fans behind home plate or on the warning track facing upwards when Eugenio Suárez and co. are hitting, they will need to find their own way out of this collective slump.