As the Mariners celebrated their three-game series victory over the Giants with a weird off day on Easter Sunday, living the sequestered life that Major League Baseball demands of them during this time of COVID, it’s instructive to not overreact to the first three games as indicative of this team and its potential for success or failure in 2021.
“Everybody wants to get off on a positive note and it certainly helped with a come-from-behind win the first night,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “That got the ball rolling a little bit. We are young, but this group has been together now and getting to know each other and when to lean on each other. You’re starting to see players mature in front of our eyes.”
The Giants, much as the Mariners, aren’t predicted for much success in 2021. They are in a weird netherworld of not really rebuilding and not really going for it. They are basically waiting for bloated contracts of veteran players like Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Johnny Cueto to come off their payroll after the season. The PECOTA projections from Baseball Prospectus had San Francisco for 78 wins with the Mariners at 70 wins. The ZIPS projections from Fangraphs had the Giants projected for 75 wins and the Mariners with 70.
Most managers and baseball folks will tell you a team’s identity is truly revealed in the first 50 games. But the three-game series with the White Sox, starting Monday, will offer a solid gauge. Chicago is considered a contender for the American League Central title with a PECOTA projection of 83 wins and a ZIPS projection of 89 wins.
Seattle will face good pitching in right-hander Lucas Giolito and left-hander Dallas Keuchel. The Mariners pitchers will face a formidable White Sox lineup that features Tim Anderson, a perennial contender for the batting title, last year’s AL MVP in Jose Abreu and power-hitting Luis Robert.
Still, there are a few things that can be taken away from the first three games of the Mariners’ season.
It’s all Gravy in the bullpen
Kendall Graveman had to wait until the third game of the season to make his first appearance out of the Mariners’ bullpen. But he maximized it, tossing two shutout innings Saturday in the 4-0 victory. He faced seven batters and allowed just one ball to be put into play.
Graveman struck out the side in the sixth inning, unleashing his sinking fastball consistently at 96-98 mph and even touching 99 mph in his first inning. In his second inning, his fastball velocity dipped to 95-96 mph with the adrenaline wearing off and a bit of fatigue. He hit the first batter he faced, but came back to strike out the next two hitters and got a broken-bat pop-out to first base to end his outing.
“Unbelievable,” Servais said. “The stuff was awesome.”
Graveman converted to a reliever last season due to a benign bone tumor in his neck, hoping the shorter bursts of work would lead to less discomfort. Graveman admitted that until the tumor can be removed or diminishes in some way, he will remain a reliever. He’s starting to develop that mindset.
“It excites me to come to the park knowing that I have a chance to get in the game,” he said. “It’s an excitement. Just being on your toes. The game can switch at any moment.”
That’s the biggest adjustment — understanding when he needs to get physically and mentally ready. As a starter, he had days to prepare. He asked Servais, bullpen coach Trent Blank and pitching coach Pete Woodworth to communicate as much as possible with the bullpen.
“That’s one thing that I presented them,” he said. “It was: ‘Hey, for us to be as prepared as possible, it’s the communication.’ How can we be the best in the league at communicating with our guys in the bullpen, when we might be needed for the night, what are we looking at as far as our pitches and a pitch count of previous nights, are we looking to go to you in the fifth or sixth or we looking to go to an eighth, what is your pocket in this lineup that you match up well against? Hat’s off to those guys. They are doing a great job and just having us prepared for any moment in the game.”
While people go crazy over the fastball velocity, which is dominant, the Mariners have pushed Graveman to reestablish his slider.
“It was not until the end of last year, when he was fully committed to going to the bullpen, until he came up with a slider that he was comfortable with,” Servais said. “We spent a lot of time in spring training trying to convince Gravy to throw his offspeed pitches. Looking at the dominant relievers in the game and how his pitches match up individually, it is quite a list.”
The best comparison for Graveman is Blake Treinen.
“He’s throwing just as hard with just as much sink,” Servais said. “Now Gravy’s got that cutter-slider working along with a really good changeup. He’s going to be a big part of our bullpen this year. He loves being out there. He wants to be in the mix when it really matters the most and that’s a great weapon to have.”
Dominating the zone?
The Mariners used to have the in-house philosophy of “Control the Zone” and then a few years ago they pushed it to “Dominate the Zone.” They wanted it to be a mindset for pitchers and hitters. It’s something that they were starting to do toward the end of spring training and it was noticeable to Servais in the opening series.
“We controlled the strike zone,” he said. “Even (Saturday), I think we walked a couple guys, but we also struck out 12 of their guys. Our hitters for the most part throughout the series did not chase a ton. There was an at-bat here or there, where guys got away from their plan. I’ve talked about it often — our D to Z number. If we continue to be on the positive side of that and grow it with young players, we are going to have a good season. We really will.”
The simplest way to find the Mariners’ Dominate the Zone number is to take these numbers from a team’s stats: hitters’ walks (positive value), hitters’ strikeouts (negative value), pitchers’ walks (negative value), pitchers’ strikeouts (positive value).
A team should come out with a positive value meaning more hitter walks and pitchers strikeouts than hitter strikeouts and pitcher walks.
In 2019, the Mariners’ offense drew 588 walks (sixth most in MLB) and struck out 1,581 times (second most in MLB) while the pitching issued 505 walks (ninth fewest) and struck out 1,239 (second fewest in MLB). That totals an ugly D-to-Z number of minus-259
In 2020, the Mariners’ hitters drew 207 walks (12th highest) and struck out 545 times (eighth most) while their pitchers issued 230 walks (sixth most) and struck out 469 batters (fifth fewest). That led a minus-99 D-to-Z number.
This spring, the Mariners hitters drew a MLB-high 129 walks and struck out 239 times (17th most). Seattle pitchers issued 104 walks (18th fewest) and struck out 253 hitters (11th highest).
That was a plus-39 D-to-Z number.
In three games, the Mariners’ offense has worked 18 walks (second most in MLB) and struck out 29 times (sixth most) while the pitching has walked 10 batters (tied for eighth fewest) and struck out 32 batters (third most).
That yields an early plus-31 D-to-Z number.
“It doesn’t really matter how many homers we hit and what it all looks like,” Servais said. “Controlling the strike zone is what it’s about, that’s what sticks out for me in this series. That’s been the battle cry with this group for a few years now and it’s paying dividends, it’s paying off right now.”