Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
July 20, 2001
BASEBALL: The 2001 Mariners at the Midpoint
Originally posted on Projo.com
The Seattle Mariners weren’t supposed to be this good. Not even close. I mean, I remember the preseason in 1998, when everyone was talking about how good the Yankees could be, how deep they were. I remember 1986, when Davey Johnson declared in the spring (after the Mets had won 98 games the year before despite their best hitter missing almost a third of the season) that he didn’t just want to win – he wanted to dominate. The Tigers of 1984 weren’t as heralded, but everyone knew the talent there was superior and they were preceded by years of debate about when they were going to put it all together. Yet, almost nobody picked these Mariners to win more games than it did last season, and few gave them a chance to make a return trip to the ALCS. Good teams often sneak up on you – but great teams rarely do.
And this has been, thus far, a great team. Through 66 games, they had the best record of all time, topping the 1927 Yankees, the 1998 Yankees, the 1906 Cubs, everybody, peaking at a 52-14 record (!!) on June 16. They currently lead the majors in runs scored and are second in the AL in fewest runs allowed. Entering Thursday’s action they were 68-26, on a pace to break the 1906 Cubs’ record of 116 wins in a regular season.
The hot question around the majors is: How did they do it – and can it keep up? More than a few columnists have weighed in on this, so I won’t hit every angle here, and I’m not going to speculate on how they will fare the rest of the season beyond noting some of the things that can’t be expected to continue. But there are a few elements of Seattle’s success worth exploring in some detail.
To start with, the Mariners were a stronger team last season than most people realized. They allowed 780 runs (only one other AL team, the Red Sox, was under 810) while scoring 907 runs, fourth in the AL. Only three other major-league teams – the White Sox, A’s and Giants – finished in the top 4 in their league in both runs scored and runs allowed, and the Mariners were the only one of those four to make it out of the Divisional Series alive. And the pitching staff had to survive more than two months with Freddy Garcia on the shelf with a broken leg.
Still, the prevailing wisdom was that Seattle’s various offseason additions wouldn’t be enough to offset the offensive hole left by the departure of the game’s best everyday player. (Note to Barry Bonds fans: This is an offhand comment. Argue with me about it some other time). The Mariners were busy in the market, though; among other things, this has to be the least home-grown team since Wayne Huizenga’s Rotisserie team won the 1997 World Series. Other than the back of the bullpen, only three significant Mariners are products of the Seattle farm system: Edgar Martinez (who was signed by the Mariners when Tony Eason was in college), Bret Boone and Jeff Nelson, both of whom left town years ago and had to be re-signed on the free-agent market. While a lot of the contributors came as bounty for Griffey and Randy Johnson, the long list of free-agent signings should disabuse anyone of the notion that the Mariners, with their huge regional and international TV market and spankin’ new ballpark, are a “small market” team.
The source of the Mariners’ success has been a bit hard to pin down. The pitching staff carried the team for the first 28 games, posting a spectacular (in this day and age) 3.20 ERA on its way to a 22-6 record. That fit the popular image of the Mariners as a team remade around pitching and defense after the departure of Griffey and Rodriguez. After that, the offense kicked in.
At this writing, the greatest share of the credit has to go to the offense. The Mariners are scoring nearly 6 runs a game (5.95) – not quite the 1927 Yankees (6.33) or 1999 Indians (6.23), but definitely in that neighborhood, and in a cavernous, pitcher-friendly park (they’re scoring 6.54 runs/game on the road, which if done over a full season would fall just short of the post-1900 record for runs scored).
Yet, it doesn’t look that impressive. Seattle has offensive holes at three positions: SS (Carlos Guillen batting/slugging/on base of .255/.351/.326), 3B (David Bell .268/.434/.309, even after a hot streak), and C (mostly Dan Wilson .261/.393/.313). Now, the 1927 Yankees had weak links at the same three positions plus a pitcher, but those Yankees also had Babe Ruth hitting 60 homers and Lou Gehrig having his best season. You will not see anyone on the Mariners roster who resembles Ruth or Gehrig; nobody’s hitting above .340 or slugging .600, and Bret Boone is the only Mariner on a pace to hit more than 30 homers.
The main reason the Mariner offense doesn’t get a lot of respect is Boone. The problem, image-wise, is that the best players on the team are having (by their own standards) ordinary years, while the one guy who’s having a huge year is a proven mediocrity with a consistent track record of not being anywhere near this good.
Boone has not been the team’s best hitter – that’s Edgar Martinez, who’s been the Mariners’ best hitter most seasons since 1995 – but he’s probably second. Boone is leading the team in slugging (.583), HR and RBI, on a clip to finish the season at 40 HR and 153 RBI if he keeps the pace. Those numbers wouldn’t jump off the page if they came from Alex Rodriguez, who slugged .582 and averaged 40 HR and 122 RBI his last three years in Seattle and is coming into his prime at age 25. But Boone is 32, and except for the strike season he’s never hit .270 or slugged .460 in a season. His career on-base percentage of .312 is bad even for a middle infielder. Freak seasons do happen – Norm Cash, a fine hitter but nobody’s idea of a batting champ, hit .361 once, and Miguel Dilone hit .341 – and Boone credits his improvement in part to adding 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason (a common enough story these days). But our long experience as baseball fans teaches us to mistrust veterans who are hitting 75 points above their lifetime batting average in mid-July. So Boone gets discounted, and we wonder how these guys score so many runs with three weak links and without a big-time power hitter.
(I had intended to write up here an argument on why Roberto Alomar, a great player having his best season, should have started the All-Star Game ahead of Boone, but Joe Sheehan of the Baseball Prospectus beat me to the punch. Note that Boone’s RBI edge comes from batting twice as often with men in scoring position than Alomar.)
The other guy who has stepped up is Mike Cameron. Let’s make the obvious comparison:
Player A is Cameron, Player B is Ken Griffey, both since The Trade. Cameron’s not as good as Griffey and never will be, but he’s certainly held up his end, hasn’t he?
Looking hard at the numbers, the Mariners are scoring with four particular weapons:
1. Balance among the team’s good hitters. The STATS, Inc. Runs Created formula, which measures how many runs a team of 9 of a hitter would score, has 5 Mariners at 6.4 or higher (Martinez, the equally silent-but-deadly John Olerud, Boone, Ichiro and Mike Cameron), but only one above 8 (Martinez at 9.2).
2. High on-base percentages -- .357 as a team, led by Martinez (.431) and Olerud (.426). In this regard, supersub Mark McLemore (.366) has been the stealth weapon, taking playing time from Bell and Guillen in addition to playing left field.
3. The team is hitting improbably well with men on base – see this rather dense Baseball Primer article for an in-depth look at how this affects the offense and why it’s less-than-likely to keep up. Ichiro is hitting .425 with men on base, .493 with runners in scoring position.
4. That old staple of managers everywhere, moving baserunners – but without losing them. The Mariners hit-and-run a lot, and steal a lot of bases; they’re second in the majors (behind the Yankees) in steals with 97 but have been caught just 20 times, the fourth-lowest total in baseball and an impressive 83% success rate. Partly as a result, even with guys hitting third and fourth who would struggle to beat Rod Beck in a foot race and despite having more men on base than any team in the majors, the Mariners have hit into 10 fewer double plays (55) than any other AL team (only the Rockies have fewer). Olerud alone has accounted for 11 of those. Seattle also leads the majors in sac flies with 43 (only the Phillies are even close), and is near the bottom in batter strikeouts.
Take a look at #3 & 4. You can scoff if you want at the virtues of “little ball,” and it remains true that the difference between good teams and bad teams is the big things, not the little ones. Teams that build a team around “little ball” as a strategy almost always come to ruin. None of this would matter if Seattle didn’t have all those baserunners to start with. But the Mariners have executed the “little things” so well across the board that it all adds up to a big advantage, big enough to help explain how a team that’s twelfth in the majors in home runs is leading the pack in scoring. It also helps explain a pattern that the Baseball Prospectus’ Keith Woolner examines in exhaustive mathematical detail: The Mariners are scoring in a higher percentage of their innings, and in a higher percentage of the innings following another team’s scoring, than any team of the last 20 years (since records of such things have been kept).
THE PITCHING AND DEFENSE
The Mariner pitching staff, like the offense, doesn’t look like a great staff. There are no superstars, yet when you look instead for superior depth you see that 56 of their 94 games have been started by 5 pitchers who collectively have a 5.06 ERA and have allowed 363 hits in 322 innings while striking out 188. There are two major elements to their success.
First is the much-vaunted bullpen. Jeff Nelson has surrendered 15 hits in 39.2 innings, 3.4 per 9 innings; I’m not sure if that would be a record pace for a low-inning reliever, but the record for starters is 5.26 (Nolan Ryan, 1972) and it’s rare for even the Wagner/Benitez/Percival crowd of relievers to go below 4.5. I wouldn’t say that Nelson has been the most important free agent signing of the offseason – there’s that Manny guy, for starters – but his impact on the M’s pen has been huge and the Yankees had to trade valuable prospects for two guys to fill the void he left in New York. Kazu Sasaki, Arthur Rhodes and Jose Paniagua have also all been unhittable to various degrees. This puts opponents on the flip side of Seattle’s offensive success: they can’t get the key hits when they need them. Mariner opponents are batting .199 after the sixth inning.
The other item is defense, specifically the outfield. Let’s recall that last season the Mariners had a famously indifferent 41-year-old with a wet noodle of an arm (Rickey Henderson) play over 900 innings in left field. They had a 36-year-old (Jay Buhner) play over 800 innings in right field with knees that weren’t up for shuffleboard. While both were once fine defensive oufielders, those days are ancient history now. Both those players are gone, Rickey permanently. In right field is Ichiro; with blazing speed and a great arm, Ichiro leads all AL right fielders in range factor (plays per inning) and is fourth in zone rating (plays per ball hit in his “zone”). Those figures are up 20% and 7%, respectively, from Buhner’s 2000 stats, which depending how you figure it may have saved the Mariners anywhere from 20-40 hits allowed already. At any rate it’s a noticeable difference, at least as noticeable as the loss if you replaced Ichiro with a .280 hitter. The left-field situation is less dramatic, but Al Martin, Stan Javier and Mark McLemore have all been clear improvements over Rickey in left in both defensive categories. They’ve also got 4 assists, not spectacular but Rickey didn’t throw out a baserunner all last year. Ichiro has also already matched Buhner’s assist total for last season. And playing amidst better help on all sides, Mike Cameron’s already impressive defensive stats have been much improved.
The net result of all this: it can’t be a coincidence that pitchers like Nelson and Aaron Sele are allowing so many fewer hits this season. Good defense may not show up in the box score, but like moving baserunners, if you do it well enough, when you add it all up over half a season the evidence is there.
TRIVIA FACTS: #1 Many fans know that Lou Gehrig, not Babe Ruth, won the MVP award in 1927. But did you know that Ruth didn’t get a single vote? Under the rules then in force, a player who had won the MVP previously was ineligible – so after winning the award in 1923, Ruth wasn’t even considered again until the award was discontinued and then revived by the BBWAA in 1931.
#2 The Cubs of 1906 lost the World Series – smack in the middle of a regular-season tear that may never be equalled. The Cubs finished the 1906 season 55-10, and started the next one 51-16, for a staggering 106-26 record, an .803 clip.