This year in Seattle, things were going to be different. The Mariners front office had enough of the lackluster offense. They had enough stranding Felix Hernandez on an island with no food, water, or run support.
The Mariners went deep into the world of run prevention and, after one surprise nice season, saw the other side of that coin. The desolation turned off fans, who stopped coming out to the ballpark in the same numbers as before.
This year would be different. The Mariners cast their established model of “defense and pitching in a gigantic ballpark” in a two-fold move. First, they made the gigantic ballpark smaller! Then, they changed the makeup of their club, bringing in a parade of DH-type players and veteran sluggers. The result: the Mariners are right back where they started, with a feeble offense and a fourth place finish in their sights.
The Mariners bold moves to generate more offense included acquiring Michael Morse, re-signing Raul Ibanez and acquiring Kendrys Morales for solid starting pitcher Jason Vargas. If more offense was the goal then mission accomplished, Jack Z! If anything, mission more than accomplished! Aside form the Morse disaster (the big first baseman/outfielder DH was alternately awful and injured in 2013 before being unceremoniously dumped on the Orioles), as Ibanez spent much of the season putting up better numbers than almost any other hitter at the age of 41.
Morales, meanwhile, is playing is way into a tidy paycheck. As our own Jack Moore detailed last week, the Cuban first baseman/DH’s return from oblivion is one of baseball’s best stories this year.
The Mariners have hit the most home runs as a team since 2006. They also have their highest team ISO since that year, when offense was much more prevalent league-wide. Yet they will struggle to score as many runs as the shock 2009 edition of the M’s that conspired to win 85 games. They must also win 8 of their remaining 15 games if they hope to avoid losing 90 on the season for the third time in four years.
The offense came but, unfortunately, the wins did not. The offense is better but it remains spotty and wildly inconsistent. Hot streaks from Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley came after the two franchise “pillars” spent time in the minor leagues and gave way to the same old underperformance Mariners fans expect.
Worse yet, the turn away from defense and run prevention cost them exactly as we might expect: the defense is lousy and taking a toll on the starting pitching.
The new, cozier dimensions at Safeco Field affected the Mariners starting pitchers every so slightly. After giving up 1.03 home runs per nine innings overall last year, the M’s allow 1.10 HR/9 in 2013 (at home, they average 1 HR/9 at home this season compared to 0.89 last.) Thanks to a slightly higher strikeout rate compared to than last season (with the same walk rate), the Mariners team FIP sunk down a few points to 3.93, compared to 4.00 in 2012.
FIP is an ERA predictor, based on strikeouts, walks, and home run rates. Those numbers have largely stayed the same for the Mariners over the last three years but their ERA jumped by more than half a run this season. How? That defense thing that the M’s decided they no longer cared about.
The Mariners, as team, watched their BABIP allowed explode by 20 points year-over-year. Their defensive efficiency fell from fourth to 26th in baseball. They simply give up more runs despite a very similar pitching staff with similarly productive pitchers. UZR? Hates the Mariners, the former darlings of the rating system. From +20 to -70 in one season. Defense Runs Saved feels even more strongly, sliding from a respectable +17 in 2012 to an unbelievably bad -101. MINUS ONE HUNDRED!
Raul Ibanez and Michael Morse are predictably the main offenders, though Michael Saunders adventures in center field do not rate well, nor do converted outfielder Dustin Ackley’s small sample traipses through the grass. It is hard to blame Ibanez, as any team trotting out a 41-year-old outfielder whose defensive miscues were the stuff of high comedy half a decade ago gets what they deserve. Ibanez hit so well he forced the Mariners to keep him in the lineup. Their poorly-conceived logjam at DH and first left Ibanez no place to go.
The Mariners sold out defense for offense but, as Geoff Baker details today, the offense has barely improved. The Mariners are left to do what only the Mariners can do with such regularity: wait. For what? Who knows. The rise of Taijuan Walker and James Paxton to join Felix and Iwakuma in a rotation that must strike everybody out to survive? Wait for Mike Zunino to figure out the daily grind of big league life and also what a breaking ball looks like?
Have they waited long enough to know which Justin Smoak is the real one? What about Dustin Ackley? Is he fixed or is he…this. Jack Zduriencik has one year to figure it out and then he’s likely out of a job. He has to be, doesn’t he? For all the good the Mariners do in building a strong brand in the community with fun ballpark promotions and the ongoing presence of Felix Hernandez, the team is awful. They’re awful and appear stuck, which is not a good thing to say about a general manager after five years.
Maybe he can find a balance between “all DHs/first baseman” and “enough DHs/first basemen”, find a balance between “defensive wizard shortstop who cannot hit” and “young fish out of water.” But this latest experiment under Jack Z experience is a failure. Only his draft picks can bail him out now. Don’t worry, Brad Miller, Nick Franklin, Mike Zunino, and Taijuan Walker. No pressure.