The statistical projection systems didn’t offer much hope for success for the Mariners.
The baseball analysts and experts, who were less than inspired by the roster returnees and lack of offseason additions, predicted something less than mediocrity. Even the general manager and manager, who spent much of spring training walking through and trying to clean up the mess that former President Kevin Mather left behind, wouldn’t commit to anything more than “improving every day” and “hoping to compete for a playoff spot” when pressed about their goals and expectations for the 2021 season.
Really, it was only the players who believed this team should be something more. That the nebulous goals that often come with rebuilding needed to stop, and the expectation of winning should be the focus.
“I think it’s time to go,” J.P. Crawford told media in late January. “Everyone has had their time. I think we have a competitiveness to go out there and win every night and be a winning team. If we just all believe that, and we all play like that and show up each day like we can do that, it will make a big difference.”
And thus far, the players have done so, exceeding the expectations of the projection systems, the baseball experts and their own leadership. The Mariners went into Monday’s All-Star break with a 48-43 record. They are in the familiar territory of being in third place in the American League West, sitting seven games back of first-place Houston (55-36) and 3½ games behind second-place Oakland (49-43).
“This can’t be anything but fun for everybody involved,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “From the front office, the fans, the players, it’s a young team that continues to improve, and they’re a lot of fun to watch.”
In the AL wild card standings, the Rays hold the first wild card spot with a 53-37 record, while the A’s hold the second wild card spot.
It means Seattle is also 3½ games out of the last playoff spot with the Blue Jays, Yankees and Indians a game behind at 4½ games back.
“We’re watching young players make progress, and that’s what this has been about,” Dipoto said. “And to do that, while playing above .500, and showing that we can be competitive with the best teams in the league is more than we could have hoped for in this season. I’m going to mark it as a real positive at the half and hope for the same. Because if, if we experienced the same in the second half, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The Mariners’ success is even more impressive considering they’ve dealt with injuries and struggles to expected key contributors.
The six-man starting rotation has been ravaged by injuries to the point that they don’t have enough healthy arms on their 40-man roster to fill out a five-man rotation when they return from the break.
Veteran lefty James Paxton threw a total of 1 1/3 innings in his first start before being lost for the season to Tommy John surgery. The team’s ace and pitching leader Marco Gonzales missed a month due to a forearm strain and has struggled for much of 2021, posting a 1-5 record and 5.88 ERA in 11 starts. Right-hander Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield are both currently on the injured list and not expected to return immediately. Dunn (shoulder strain) had pitched well at times, posting a 3.75 ERA while Sheffield (oblique and forearm strain) was throwing his way to a demotion before being hurt.
But the efforts of Yusei Kikuchi (6-4, 3.48 ERA), Chris Flexen (8-3, 3.51) and rookie Logan Gilbert (3-2, 3.51) have held the rotation together.
It also helps that the Mariners bullpen, a collection of castoffs, minor league signees and unproven relievers, has been outstanding. Per FanGraphs, it has been worth 4.3 wins above replacement (WAR), which is second most in baseball, trailing only the Yankees (4.5). While the overall ERA has ballooned to 4.13 with a couple of extremely bad outings, the unit has allowed the Mariners to post a 19-7 record in one-run games, which is the best in MLB, and a 10-1 record in extra-inning games.
“Our bullpen has been awesome,” Dipoto said. “And it was roughly a number of guys that no one’s ever heard of that just needed another chance.”
Seattle’s success has also come despite an offense that ranks as one of the worst in baseball. The offense has produced 5.3 WAR, which ranks 28th out of the 30th teams. By comparison, the Astros, who lead MLB, have a 19.9 WAR. The Mariners rank last in MLB in batting average (. 216), on-base percentage (. 292) and 26th in slugging percentage (. 377).
The Mariners still have a minus-50 run differential, having scored 371 runs and allowing 421. That differential projects to a 40-51 record based on baseball’s Pythagorean equation.
It hasn’t helped that Kyle Lewis, the reigning rookie of the year, played in just 36 games before suffering a knee injury and produced minimally in that time. Top prospect Jarred Kelenic struggled in his promotion while catcher Tom Murphy and second baseman Dylan Moore have played below replacement levels.
When the Mariners were no-hit twice in May, posting a .199/.274/.350 slash line for the month, the offense seemed historically bad. After losing three of four to a bad Detroit team at home and getting swept by the Padres in embarrassing fashion, the Mariners were 21-26 May 23.
Since then, the Mariners are 27-17, with a plus-2 run differential of 195 runs scored vs. 193 runs allowed. And over those 44 games, they’ve posted an improved .233/.305/.397 slash line while averaging 4.4 runs per game, including in June where they posted a .245/.312/.421 slash line in 26 games while averaging 4.80 runs per game.
The growth of J.P. Crawford into an offensive presence to complement his Gold Glove defense, the emergence of Jake Fraley as an on-base machine, the steady presence of Ty France and the power of Mitch Haniger have helped the offense grow into something more respectable. The return of Kelenic, who is tearing up Triple-A, for the second half, the recent call-up of catcher Cal Raleigh and the belief that a rested Kyle Seager will rebound from a sluggish June provides hope for a more consistent offense.
“I’ve said all along I thought we’d continue to get better and we have,” manager Scott Servais said. “We started off real slow offensively for sure — April and May were a struggle for us. We’ve gotten more consistent offensively and that’s a credit to our players and our coaches. They have worked very hard. We have not gotten away from what we believe to be very important if you want to have a successful lineup that’s controlling the strike zone. Our guys grind through at-bats.”
Like Crawford preached, they’ve improved and won at the same time.
“I said it (in) spring, we were coming in this thing knowing that we could win,” he said. “We all thought it. We all think it every day. We put in the work every day. We all trust each other. And I knew from the beginning of the season with the core we had and the team we had, we were going to come out here and shock a lot of people.”
Can they keep it going?
“We’ve put ourselves in a position to play really meaningful games once we get back from the break and leading into the trade deadline,” Servais said. “We’ll see what August and September have in store for us. Our guys needed the (rest), they’ve really busted it. I can’t say enough about this group and how they bring the energy every day. It’s been a lot of fun to watch.”