Two stretches of baseball in this shortened and unusual baseball season offered a glaring juxtaposition of the Mariners and where they might be in this rebuild process.
A 3-2 loss to the Oakland A’s on Aug. 1 in 10 innings when Seattle’s bullpen, an expected weakness that would remain that way for most of the season, coughed up a 2-0 lead in the seventh inning started a four-game losing streak that led to a 4-15 stretch in 19 games.
During that span, the starting pitchers produced a 4.83 ERA with 10 starts of fewer than six complete innings. The bullpen had a 6.01 ERA that featured 47 walks and 79 strikeouts in 70 1/3 innings pitched. Meanwhile, the offense rolled out a miserable .197/.279/.328 slash line* with 62 total runs (3.3 runs per game), 19 homers with 61 walks and 163 strikeouts.
The Mariners’ mantra of “Dominate the Zone” — a rewording of the previous slogan of “Control the Zone” — was being ignored more than the I-5 speed limit.
Then came a three-game series with the hapless Rangers, the G-rated version of a slumpbuster, on Aug. 20 at T-Mobile Park. Seattle swept the series, outscoring Texas 21-6 in the three games, and then came an 8-3 drubbing of the Padres at Petco Park. The four-game winning streak was part of an 11-3 stretch that also featured a blown five-run lead for a walkoff loss, a three-game series with the A’s getting postponed and ended with a four-game sweep of the Rangers.
During that span, Seattle’s offense posted a .259/.341/.435 slash line with 76 runs scored (5.42 runs per game), 18 homers, 74 RBI, 51 walks and 115 strikeouts. The starting pitchers had nine starts of six-plus innings with a 3.04 ERA while limiting opponents to a .217/.265/.315 slash line. And that production limited the bullpen to just 37 2/3 innings, the fewest from any MLB bullpen over that span, which is good since the relievers had a combined 6.69 ERA.
Manager Scott Servais was giddy about his starters getting ahead in counts and his hitters grinding out at-bats. And his team was 19-22 and two games out of two different spots in the expanded playoffs.
The Mariners faded in the final 19 games – going 8-11 — which included six home games being played on the road due to COVID-19 and air quality conditions. They were eliminated from the postseason with four games remaining in the season.
So who are the Mariners going forward?
Are they the inexperienced group from that miserable stretch early in the season or the athletic and energetic bunch that took advantage of the Rangers in that second stretch.
It’s easy and safe to say somewhere in the middle.
Of course, the Mariners believe they are the latter team.
“We came into 2020 before the COVID-19 shutdown with the hope that a young team would get the experience that we think was required to take that next step toward contention,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said in a video conference. “And that’s how we were going to measure our success this year … did the young players that we were challenging with this opportunity improve over time? And I think the answer to that question is yes. So by that measure I think 2020 was a success despite the fact we were only able to play 60 games.”
The Mariners were picked by most analysts and experts to finish last in the AL West while projection systems had them winning around 22 games and also finishing last. Seattle finished third above the Angels and Rangers.
“By measure of wins and losses, I think we exceeded the expectations of some,” Dipoto said. “But by measure of how competitive we were, I think we exceeded the expectation of all, and that’s a credit to our players and our staff, and I think a job really well done. It’s tough to look at a season where we are sitting here at home, and not in the playoffs, as having hit on the markers that we set, but we really did. And in many cases, we exceeded what those expectations might be.”
Servais doesn’t maintain the 30,000-foot view of the front office. But he felt it in the day-to-day aspects.
“I know the mindset of our team shifted,” Servais said in a video conference. “It shifted about halfway through this thing. I really felt there was an everyday focus on winning the ballgame. We were still focused on developing young players and giving them opportunity, but along the way, once the game started, the competitiveness of our group really rose. It was great to see and really excites me going forward because that’s where you want to be — everyday coming into the ballpark feeling you have a chance to win, going about your business, knowing that you’re gonna win every night.”
Servais believes it came from remembering and focusing on their baseline philosophy.
“What played out the last 35 to 40 games was our ability to control the zone,” he said. “We got off to a horrific start. That’s why our record wasn’t good early on. But over the last 35 to 40 games, we’ve been right where we should be, in my opinion, with a very young roster. As far as controlling the zone, that will get better. That’ll be one of the things we focus on next year is to look at our numbers and what we’re able to do this year from a pitching standpoint and a hitting standpoint.”
It would seem they are trending more toward that stint of success and solid play. Given they featured the youngest roster in the American League and had a myriad of players either playing in their first or second MLB season, struggles and inconsistency were expected.
The idea of the execution and focus required to win one major-league baseball game is hard for young players to fathom. While results are kept and champions are crowned in the minor leagues, the urgency of the outcome of each game isn’t close to the same.
“That’s something I felt like we kind of realized in the opening series,” Evan White said in a video conference. “Nothing’s ever handed to you in this game. It’s just never easy. That’s something that we realized. A lot of us are young guys and didn’t get to experience it at this level, so seeing and knowing that you have to be mentally sharp for 9, 10, 11 innings however long the game is, it’s definitely something that we need to continue to improve upon.”
From a statistical standpoint, Seattle’s offense ranked as one of the lowest in the American League in terms of runs per game (4.23), batting average (.226), on-base percentage (.309), slugging percentage (.370) and homers (60).
The starting pitching was better than expected, logging 304 innings – the fourth most in the AL – and posting a 4.04 ERA (seventh lowest).
The bullpen, well, it wasn’t expected to be good and wasn’t, finishing with a 5.92 ERA, 5.1 walks per nine innings, 1.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio – all the worst in the American League.
* batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage