Starting pitching has been a problem all season, but were the struggles somewhat predictable?
OAKLAND, Calif. — The cynic could see it coming. And even the most optimistic of analysts or fans still knew this was a possibility. In the sun-soaked days of spring training, when everything was possibility and positivity, even a cursory look at the Mariners’ projected starting rotation provided some level of skepticism.
Each of the five projected starters — Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma, Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo — had questions marks surrounding their expected 2017 production based on recent injuries, poor performance or both.
The M’s believed an offseason of conditioning, a renewed urgency for success and an improved approach to attacking hitters would allow Hernandez to return to a higher level of productivity. It hasn’t.
Seattle hoped Iwakuma’s 2016 season where he tied a career high with 33 starts wouldn’t be an outlier and the fatigue he suffered at the end of 2016 could be avoided with extra rests and a few skipped starts. He hasn’t pitched since May.
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Paxton was all tantalizing talent and top-of-the-rotation potential. He’d never been able to put it all together for one full season. He has this year.
Smyly was coming off a career-high 30 starts in 2016 with mixed results that included a 4.88 ERA and 32 homers allowed. The Mariners were buoyed by his 5-1 record and 3.73 ERA in his final 12 starts of 2016 and an additional year of club control. But he’d also missed much of the 2015 season with arm issues. He’ll miss all of 2017 too.
Gallardo was coming off one of the worst seasons of his career that included an early stint on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation, a 5.42 ERA and decreased velocity. Could he find his success of 2015? In a word: No.
On May 10, the Mariners placed Iwakuma on the 10-day disabled list with shoulder inflammation. He joined Smyly (elbow strain), Hernandez (shoulder bursitis) and Paxton (forearm strain) on the DL, meaning that four of the five projected starters were out. And the remaining starter — Gallardo — was slowly pitching his way into a bullpen demotion.
Smyly never threw pitch for Seattle in the regular season and Iwakuma might not throw another one in a Mariners uniform.
Now the starting rotation consists of Paxton, Ariel Miranda, who has filled Smyly’s spot since the start of the season, Gallardo, who earned his spot back for now, and two players that weren’t even with the team until a few weeks ago — Erasmo Ramirez and Marco Gonzales.
That the Mariners have a 57-56 record is an accomplishment given the turnover.
Over 113 games, the Mariners have had 15 pitchers make a start this season — the most in baseball.
Not surprisingly, Seattle’s starters have a 4.75 ERA, which ranks 11th in the American League. Remove Paxton’s brilliant production, and the starters’ ERA balloons to 5.15. Of the 113 starts made this season, only 21 times has a pitcher gone seven innings or more. Paxton and Miranda each accounted for seven of those outings. Conversely, the Mariners have had 43 starts of five innings or less.
Obviously, the Mariners need starting pitching help if they are going to make a run for the wild card in the final 49 games. Beyond that, the same starting pitching problems that persist now aren’t fixed next season. Iwakuma and Smyly are likely gone, leaving a projected rotation of Paxton, Hernandez, Miranda, Ramirez and Gonzales/Moore in 2018.
Here’s a closer look at all 15 pitchers that have made a start in the regular season for the Mariners:
LHP Ariel Miranda: 22 starts, 7-5 record, 4.41 ERA
He was supposed to be the No. 1 starter in Class AAA Tacoma to start the season, but Smyly’s elbow issues forced the Mariners to make a switch just days before the season. Even with his recent struggles, Miranda has been key to Seattle’s success. He’s never missed a start. He was 6-2 with a 3.67 ERA in his first 13 starts, but he’s 1-3 with a 5.43 ERA in his nine starts. The 27 homers allowed are an issue.
LHP James Paxton: 19 starts, 12-3 record, 2.70 ERA
With the exception of the three-week stint on the disabled list because of forearm tightness, Paxton has been everything the Mariners had hoped and everything he’d promised to be going into the season. He’s won his last seven starts while posting a 1.59 ERA while moving into the AL Cy Young conversation.
LHP Yovani Gallardo: 17 starts, 4-7 record, 5.91 ERA
He pitched his way out of the rotation and then earned his spot back with some solid long relief work. It’s been frustrating for Gallardo and the Mariners because it’s not a question of stuff. His fastball velocity is back up to an average of 92.7 mph and touching 95 mph. But lack of command and inability to finish off hitters and innings has plagued him.
RHP Felix Hernandez: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 4.28 ERA
The offseason conditioning program with his trainer Iron Glenn is now a memory and any gains dissipated long ago. Hernandez is now on the disabled list with shoulder issues for the second time this season. When healthy, he showed hints of buying into a new approach to getting hitters out. But at this point, it’s difficult to know what Hernandez will be over his final two years of his contract.
RHP Sam Gaviglio: 11 starts, 3-5 record, 4.62 ERA
That he made 11 starts this season at the MLB level was a stunner since he wasn’t even projected to be in Tacoma’s starting rotation and didn’t receive an invite to MLB spring training. He was serviceable, but struggled to pitch more than five innings or two times through the batting order without trouble
RHP Christian Bergman: 8 starts, 4-4 record, 5.70 ERA
The overall numbers are sort of misleading since much of his inflated ERA is due to two awful starts where he allowed 19 earned runs in 6 2/3 innings pitched. He posted a 2.25 ERA in his six other starts. Signed as a minor league free agent, Bergman has been outrighted to Tacoma and removed from the 40-man roster.
RHP Hisashi Iwakuma: 6 starts, 0-2 record, 4.35 ERA
There has been a lingering belief from some in the organization that Iwakuma won’t throw another pitch for the Mariners this season or again. He’s had setbacks in his recovery from shoulder inflammation and his velocity is way down. Even if he were to start a full throwing program now and stayed healthy, he wouldn’t be ready to come back until September.
RHP Andrew Moore: 6 starts, 1-3 record, 5.65 ERA
One of Seattle’s top pitching prospects, he was rushed a little bit to the MLB level out of necessity. He showed some signs of being effective, but also struggled to adapt to the higher level of competition. Not overpowering with his stuff, when Moore struggled with his fastball command or fell behind in counts, it usually led to hard contact and home runs. The projection of a No. 4-5 starter seems viable.
RHP Chase DeJong: 4 starts, 0-2 record, 7.78 ERA
Acquired in spring training, DeJong is one of several arms in the upper levels of the system that isn’t blessed with much fastball velocity or overpowering stuff. Instead relies on pitch-ability, command and keeping hitters off balance. Like many right-handers of that profile at the MLB level, some days are decent and many more can be a struggle.
RHP Erasmo Ramirez: 2 starts, 0-1 record, 7.56 ERA
Acquired just before the trade deadline, Ramirez comes back to the organization that signed him. In two starts, he showed reasons why he was traded the first time, specifically mistakes in the strike zone and pitch inefficiency. He had been a middle reliever with the Rays for much of this season and might be destined for that role again.
LHP Marco Gonzales: 1 start, 0-0 record, 11.25 ERA
The Mariners traded for the former first round pick of the Cardinals before the deadline. Gonzales is coming off a season missed recovering from Tommy John surgery. He isn’t overpowering with a 90-91 mph fastball. He relies on a plus changeup, fastball command and pitching to some contact.
RHP Chris Heston: one start, 0-1 record, 18.00 ERA
Acquired at the winter meetings to provide experienced starting depth, Heston had minimal command or movement on his sinker for Class AAA Tacoma or the Mariners. He was designated for assignment on May 24, was claimed by the Dodgers off waivers and DFA’d again. He pitched briefly with the Twins before being outrighted to their Class AAA team.
RHP Ryan Weber: 1 start, 0-0 record, 2.45 ERA
In his only big league start with the Mariners, Weber had to leave the game with a biceps injury. He was placed on the disabled list and has remained there ever since. He has yet to start throwing off a mound.
LHP Dillon Overton: 1 start, 0-0 record, 2.70 ERA
The Mariners traded for Overton before he was designated for assignment by the A’s. He made one start and a handful of relief appearances but spent most of the season in Tacoma. He was claimed off waivers by the Padres.
RHP Rob Whalen: 1 start, 0-1 record, 8.44 ERA
Acquired as starting depth in the offseason, Whalen had multiple call-ups and made one start in Boston. He was later placed on the restricted list after leaving Class AAA Tacoma following a bad start in Reno and going home.