When a team loses 21 of its last 27 games, the blame should be widespread. That sort of failure demands team-wide responsibility. To point to one or two players, or even a position group, as the root cause of the losing contradicts the team culture of baseball.

Looking for culpability in what has been a massively disappointing start to a season filled with expectations, the list includes:

  • The failure of the front office to add another impact bat via free agency.
  • Robbie Ray not quite resembling the Cy Young Award pitcher he was in 2021.
  • The slow start and lack of extra base hits from All-Star outfielder Jesse Winker.
  • The struggles of Jarred Kelenic that forced him to be optioned to Class AAA Tacoma.
  • The injuries to outfielder Mitch Haniger, catcher Tom Murphy and relievers Ken Giles, Casey Sadler and Erik Swanson.
  • The regression of several players, including pitchers Drew Steckenrider, Chris Flexen and Anthony Misiewicz.

But the struggles of the Mariners bullpen, particularly in recent weeks, are almost impossible to ignore while portioning out the pieces of the blame pie.

Why?

Because the bullpen was so critical to the team’s success in its surprising 90-win season last year. Given the fickle nature of bullpen production and the season-to-season success of MLB relievers, it would be impossible for pitchers such as Misiewicz, Sadler, Steckenrider and Paul Sewald to replicate career-best performances in 2021.

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Yet, it’s not difficult for manager Scott Servais to see how far it has fallen.

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“It comes from lack of performance,” Servais said. “That’s what makes a bullpen work. Everybody says, ‘Oh they’ve got great back-end guys and everybody notices that guy who pitches the eighth inning or the guy who typically pitches the ninth inning. But it’s all those other guys that allow those guys the rest and for us to put them in the right spots all the time. It’s a collective unit and the group needs to be strong while understanding not everybody will be going great at the same time.”

Right now, the number of relievers that Servais trusts for high-leverage situations is down to Sewald, veteran right-hander Sergio Romo, rookie right-hander Penn Murfee and right-hander Diego Castillo when he is rested. The rest of the group has been a roll of the dice.

Steckenrider was so bad of late that the team optioned him to Class AAA Tacoma after Wednesday’s loss to the A’s so he could refind the command of his secondary pitches. Steckenrider allowed hits in 12 of his 16 outings and base runners in all but one. A year ago he had 20 outings, including five of more than one inning where he didn’t allow a runner. Opposing hitters have a .333/.382/.540 slash line against him in 68 plate appearances.

The corresponding roster move has yet to be made.

Misiewicz’s strikeout percentage has fallen from 30.1 in 2020 to 22.5 in 2021 and 14.3 in 2022. His walk percentage has increased from 6.4 in 2021 to 8.2 this season. He’s throwing first-pitch strikes just 57.1% of the time. He ranks 10th worst in MLB in average exit velocity allowed on balls in play (90.8) and hard hit percentage (44.7).

“That’s the last option is to send them out and try to get them to work on some things,” Servais said before Wednesday’s game. “But with the way we’re constructed right now, we’re one less bullpen arm, with the addition of Kyle Lewis. We’ve got to have some guys step up, pitch well and get people out.”

Per FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, the Mariners’ bullpen numbers and MLB rankings this season:

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  • FanGraphs WAR: 0.3 (tied for 23rd)
  • ERA: 4.34 (25th)
  • Strikeout percentage: 25.2 (8th)
  • Walk percentage: 8.2 (5th)
  • Batting average allowed: .240 (23rd)
  • OPS allowed: .714 (7th highest)
  • WHIP: 1.27 (19th)
  • Holds: 22 (20th)
  • Saves: 7 (tied for 13th)
  • Blown saves: 6 (tied for 4th)
  • Inherited runners scoring percentage: 33 (10th)
  • Home runs allowed: 22 (tied for 4th most)
  • First strike percentage: 59.7 (15th)

The absence of Sadler and Giles are issues. Sadler was so solid in the “pivot” role from the starter to the bullpen. This season, the Mariners bullpen has a combined 4.57 ERA in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings.  

Sadler is lost for the season, but Giles could return in a week or two.

The bullpen issues have become more pronounced over the current 6-21 stretch, which could have easily been 5-22 had Pete Alonso not been called on a game-ending check swing in New York on a 3-2 count with the bases loaded against Castillo. The pitch was out of the zone and would’ve walked in the tying run. And the Mets likely would’ve won the game.

What’s the issue?

“It’s strike throwing,” Servais said. “That’s probably the one thing that has surprised me more than anything is our strike-throwing ability to command on a consistent basis from our pitchers. There is only one way to get better at it: You’ve got trust your stuff and get it in the zone.”

Servais wants the pitchers to be aggressive.

“Guys maybe their stuff isn’t moving quite as crisply or as sharp as it has in the past,” he said. “And all pitchers want to see movement. When it’s not moving, they know it’s not moving. So then all of a sudden they think, maybe it’s got to be on the edges a little bit more instead of just trusting it and I’m not saying throw it right down the middle.”

It’s a mindset as much as execution.

“There’s not one pitcher that stands out there and says, ‘Here, go ahead, hit it.’ It’s not human nature,” Servais said. “They believe in their stuff and they want to make it nasty. But maybe when it’s not moving as much as it normally does, or doesn’t feel right coming out of their hand, they try to overcompensate and instead of the ball being in the strike zone, it’s just a little bit off or just a little bit below. And all that plays into it. There’s a million theories. I’m tired of talking about it. Just throw it over the plate and see what happens.”