In their 42-plus-year history, the Mariners have had multiple layers of badness. They’ve brought nuance and subtlety to losing – and, at times, pratfalls and buffoonery.
Mind you, this is a franchise that went 15 years after its expansion birth in 1977 before putting up its first winning season. The Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series in their fourth season of existence, the Florida Marlins (now Miami Marlins) in their fifth.
The Mariners have had just four playoff seasons in those 42 years, all jammed into a seven-year span from 1995-2001 (also known as, “The Glory Years, minus the ultimate glory”).
They were the first team to lose 100 games with a $100 million payroll (2010). They have gone longer (17 years, soon to be 18) without making the postseason, longer than any current major-sport team.
They are one of two MLB teams (with the Washington Nationals) to never reach the World Series. The Mariners’ 1977 expansion partner, the Toronto Blue Jays, had racked up two titles by 1993.
Over the years, the Mariners have been bad because they were new. Bad because they were young. Bad because they were old. Bad because management was cheap, and bad because management was clueless. They’ve been bad because of injuries and bad because they underperformed.
This year has introduced a new classification of mounting defeat: Bad with a purpose. We all know about the “step-back” strategy of general manager Jerry Dipoto, which was to essentially sacrifice this season with the belief that it would help them retool for a more realistic run at contention down the road.
It may still work. But I don’t think anyone was quite ready for the level of ineptitude that has settled over the 2019 Mariners. That 13-2 start has proven to be the mother of all aberrations. This is a really bad baseball team, without much immediate prospect for getting appreciably better.
We’ll deal with the ramifications for 2020 and beyond in due time. If Jared Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez, Justus Sheffield, Kyle Lewis, et al, develop on schedule, and the right people on the major-league roster make advances, then the organization can still end the year with a good future vibe. And that’s the whole point.
But for now, let’s face the hard truth: This could well be one of the worst teams in Mariners history. I say, “one of” because they’ve had seasons where they lost 104, 103, 102, 101 and 101 (again) games. When you give yourself an 11-games-over-.500 head start, it takes a special brand of struggle to approach those numbers.
But the Mariners are giving it the old college try. Since the 13-2 start, they are 10-27, a .270 win percentage. Over that same span, the Marlins – the standard-bearer of bad teams in 2019 – are 12-21 (.364). To avoid 100 losses, the Mariners will have to go at least 40-70 the rest of the way – a .363 winning percentage that no longer seems to be a lock.
Breaking it down further, the 2019 Mariners could easily wind up as the worst fielding team and close to the worst pitching team in franchise history. And how many times have we been told that baseball is about pitching and defense?
The season is 32% completed, a pretty good sample size (but, to be fair, still leaving plenty of time to change for the better – or worse). The Mariners have made 56 errors in 52 games, which is a .971 fielding percentage as well as a pace for 174 errors over a 162-game season. That’s rare territory not just for the Mariners, but in recent major-league play.
Never in their history have the Mariners committed more than 156 errors in a season (1986), or had a fielding percentage under .975 (same year). Since 2000, they’ve been under 100 errors in 14 of the 19 seasons (including just 88 last year), with a high in that span of 110 in 2010.
So unless things change, they’re going to blow the doors off those standards. You have to go back more than 30 years, to 1986, to find a major-league team that made more than 174 errors – the 1986 Dodgers of Mariano Duncan, Steve Sax and Bill Madlock. And back even further, nearly 40 years, to find a team with a worse fielding percentage than Seattle’s current .971 – the 1981 Mets of Dave Kingman, Hubie Brooks and Frank Tavaras at .968.
Now, things should settle down with Kyle Seager expected moving back into third base this weekend. J.P. Crawford already has been a big improvement over Tim Beckham at shortstop. And if a trade or two results in Ryon Healy slipping back over to first base, that would help as well to corral errant throws. But so far, the defense has been an unmitigated disaster.
Now let’s get to pitching. The Mariners have a 5.13 earned-run average, putting them 28th in the majors. The only two worse teams are the Royals and Orioles – not the company you want to keep.
And over these past 37 games, since the bottom fell out of the season, they have a 5.62 ERA. That breaks down to a 6.27 bullpen ERA, third-worst in the majors, with a .281 average and .880 OPS by opposing hitters. Starters aren’t thriving, either, with a 5.25 ERA, seventh-worst in that span, and a .286/.845 batting average and OPS against.
In their history, which included 22½ seasons in the launching pad known as the Kingdome, the M’s have had an ERA over 5.00 just two times – 5.21 in 1996, and 5.24 in 1999. So we’re approaching historic territory there, too – the bad kind.
The saving grace for the Mariners this year has been the offense. They still lead the majors in home runs and are tied for second in runs scored.
But the Seattle bats have been in steady decline since the mind-boggling two-week stretch at the outset of the season, when they resembled the ’27 Yankees. Now it’s more like the ’67 Yankees. In the 37 games since the 13-2 start, the Mariners have put up a .220/.294/.408 slash line, which is subpar. They are averaging 4.16 runs per game, not a winning formula when you’re giving up well over five runs per game in that same span.
Put all that together, and you can see why the Mariners have such a propensity for being blown out (losses of 15-1, 14-1, 11-0, 14-1, 11-2 and 18-4). And why they are nearly helpless against good ballclubs (8-27 against teams with a winning record, compared with 15-2 vs. those with a losing record). That might turn out to be their salvation, because there are a lot of bad teams in the American League.
Will it get better in 2019? It might, because it’s hard to imagine players such as Mallex Smith and Domingo Santana continuing to struggle so much on defense.
Or it could get worse if the Mariners trade some of their most stable players, such as Edwin Encarnacion and Dee Gordon. Mitch Haniger is starting to be mentioned as a potential trade chip as well, though I don’t see Dipoto pulling the trigger on that one.
Regardless, there’s going to be a lot more shuffling of players for the Mariners as Dipoto and manager Scott Servais try to sort out the keepers. It might pay off in the long term – but the short term has gotten ugly.