It’s a simple question that doesn’t have a simple answer.
In this season of over-achievement in Seattle, one in which the Mariners are defying metrics and logic, who is their Most Valuable Player?
Trust me, as the Mariners head into their most meaningful weekend in years, a three-game series with the Angels that will determine their playoff fate, the answer doesn’t jump off the page at you. Especially not off the pages of FanGraphs or Baseball Savant.
The Mariners don’t have that one dominant player who is putting the team on his back and carrying them down the stretch. Ken Griffey Jr. or Randy Johnson aren’t walking out of the clubhouse door.
No, this has been more the case of a shared burden, with the Mariners’ strength being in numbers. Just not the numbers that are standard in baseball evaluation, like batting average (.226, lowest in the major leagues) or run differential (minus-48, worse than the hapless Mets) or team ERA (a middling 16th-best in MLB at 4.30).
It adds up to an expected win-loss record, using the sabermetric-standard pythagorean winning percentage formula, of 75-84. With a real-life record of 89-70, they have exceeded that number by a whopping 14 victories, a nearly historical margin, which proves that their whole is truly greater than the sum of their parts.
The M’s have done that with a deep and productive bullpen (a big reason for their 33 one-run wins, most in MLB), with a starting rotation that has been outstanding in the second half, with great defense for the most part, with clutchness at the plate, with a wide range of players stepping up at key moments, and with intangibles that are impossible to quantify.
They don’t have any superstars, at least not yet, but they have a lot of good players who are proving to be winning players. To get back to my original question about the team MVP, I have my thoughts, but if yours are different, I’m not going to argue. The beauty of the 2021 Mariners is that numerous people can be viewed as their most valuable.
Here is my ranking of the top eight, in reverse order:
8. Scott Servais/Jerry Dipoto. Yes, I start with a curveball. But I don’t think you can tell the story of this team without a nod to the manager, who has coaxed the absolute most out of his roster, and the general manager, who has executed – and expedited – the rebuild ahead of most people’s schedule.
7. Marco Gonzales. After a rough beginning (he stood 1-5 with a 6.00 ERA in early July) and a month-long stint on the disabled list for a left forearm strain, Gonzales has been brilliant in the second half with a 9-0 record and 2.68 ERA. The M’s don’t get this far without Gonzales’ turnaround.
6. Kyle Seager. Yeah, the .212 average, .286 on-base percentage and 159 strikeouts are off-putting. But Seager has also played his usual solid third base and put up career highs in homers (35) and runs batted in (100), while being the fifth-most productive player in the American League with runners in scoring position (1.023 OPS). Seager, though, is 3-for-26 (.115) with no extra-base hits over his last 7 games. A breakout against the Angels would be a huge boost.
5. Pauldrewcase Steckensadwald. OK, I cheated a little. This is a composite of the three stalwarts of the Mariners bullpen: Paul Sewald, Drew Steckenrider and Casey Sadler. As a triumvirate, they have been absolutely essential to the Mariners’ success. Sewald has struck out 14.2 per nine innings, Steckenrider has a 2.06 ERA and team-leading 13 saves, and Sadler has gone 26 straight outings without giving up a run, the longest such streak in the majors this season.
Give a nod to Dipoto: Sewald came to camp on a minor-league contract after the Mets cut him loose; Steckenrider also signed a minor-league contract after sitting out the entire 2020 season; Sadler is with his fifth organization and was grabbed by the Mariners last year when the Cubs DFA’d him. If anyone (except maybe Dipoto) said they saw this sort of lockdown bullpen emerging from those three, they’re lying.
4. Mitch Haniger. Haniger has authored one of the great comeback stories in Mariners history, with 38 homers and 95 RBI after missing all of 2020 and most of 2019 with a gruesome series of injuries. It seems foolish in retrospect that one of the great debates this season was whether Seattle should trade Haniger at the deadline. They kept him and now he’s helped lead the Mariners to a torrid finish with nine September homers.
3. Chris Flexen. Flexen came to camp as a huge mystery after Dipoto signed him to a two-year, $4.75 million contract out of the Korean pro league last December. Would he be the pitcher who thrived in Korea, or the one who flamed out with the Mets?
To the Mariners’ great benefit, it has been the former. Flexen has been the rock in Seattle’s rotation and one of the most consistent starters in the American League. His 14 wins are second only to the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole, and his 3.67 ERA ranks sixth.
2. J.P. Crawford. Kyle Seager recently called Crawford a “unicorn” with the glove. His brilliant defense at the most vital position on the field, shortstop, has provided immense value to the Mariners. Crawford has also figured out who he is at the plate and contributed positively to the Mariners’ attack at the top of the order. Crawford’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR), as rated by both Baseball Reference (3.8) and FanGraphs (3.1), is second on the team in both rankings to …
1. Ty France. On April 19, France took a 98 mph fastball from the Dodgers’ Dustin May off his left wrist. Leading the team with a .936 OPS at the time, France went .157/.263/.229 over his next 80 plate appearances until the Mariners put him on the injured list to let his aching wrist heal.
Since coming off the IL, France has resumed his claim as one of the best hitters in the AL with a .312/.379/.471 mark over the ensuing 112 games. Overall, France ranks 10th in the AL in batting average (.293) and seventh in on-base percentage (.368). His bat has been the most consistent all season for the Mariners. And as a bonus, France has developed into an excellent first baseman since replacing Evan White in May.
Shohei Ohtani or Vlad Guerrero Jr. have nothing to worry about in the American League MVP race from any Mariners candidates. But cumulatively, the Mariners have found enough value to spread around.