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2012 Preview: Seattle Mariners


Seattle Mariners

What They Did:      67-95, 4th Place AL West.

     Actual Runs:      Scored 556 runs, Allowed 675.

                               Expected wins based on RS and RA:  66.8 (0.2 below actual)

           Restated:     Scored 549 runs, Allowed 638.

                               Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA:  69.9 (2.9 above actual)


The Seattle Mariners score less often than a debate team at Spring Break.  Seattle has been the lowest scoring team in the American League the last three years and the lowest scoring team in all of baseball the last two seasons.  It’s very hard for an American League team to score less runs than the worst offensive team in the National League because, of course, teams in the Junior Circuit get to insert a designated hitter in the line up in place of a pitcher.  Yet Seattle has been saddled with that distinction two years running.  The extent to which Seattle’s offensive production lacks the rest of the league can’t be explained entirely by the park effects of its home stadium, pitcher-friendly Safeco Field.  Double the runs the Mariners scored on the road in each of the last three seasons, and in each year they’d still be the lowest scoring team in the AL by a comfortable margin. 

A reliance on pitching and defense isn’t a bad philosophy but anytime you hear a fan or a commentator (especially named Morgan or McCarver) spout cliché’s like “90% of the game is pitching” please shout them down.  50% of team’s record is determined by its run production and 50% is determined by its run prevention.  Texas and Oakland essentially allowed the same amount of runs in 2011 (677 and 679 respectively).  Texas won 22 more games.  Why?  The Rangers scored 210 more runs.  (A little less than 10 runs, or 9.4 exactly, should produce a win based on the 2011 MLB run environment.)  Colorado and Cincinnati both scored 730 runs last season.  Cincinnati won six more games because it allowed 54 fewer runs than the Rockies.

Management of the Mariners finally took steps to address the reality of two-sided production and they did it in a bold manner.  In by far the most significant off-season trade this winter, the Mariners sent its prized 22-year old pitcher – an All-Star in his rookie year – Michael Pineda to the Yankees for the crown jewel of New York’s farm system, catcher Jesus Montero.  Pineda finished 2nd in the American League in strikeouts per 9 innings, behind my fantasy crush Toronto’s Brandon Morrow.  Park effects are real but Safeco suppresses extra base hits, it doesn’t meaningfully increase strikeout rates beyond a normal home-field advantage.  Pineda is the real thing; a future rotation ace with the stuff to make a lot of Game 1 starts in the Octobers of the coming decade.

Yet, I think it was a great trade.  There were no losers in this trade but I think Seattle got the better deal, not because the Yankees were fleeced, but because of the Mariners’ needs.  Seattle has a young ace in Felix Hernandez.  Because of the nature of Safeco, Seattle can turn average pitchers into significant assets, especially if those pitchers have fly ball tendencies that lessen their value to other teams.  Therefore, the Mariners don’t need to hoard aces.  (Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez got them nothing but a lot of 2-1 losses in 2010.) 

What Seattle needs is hitters and they got themselves a masher in the form of Montero.  For the life of me I couldn’t understand why the Yankees only gave Montero two at-bats in the ALDS last season (he promptly went 2-2).  The need to get his prodigious bat in the line-up is so acute, it shouldn’t matter whose plate appearances (Posada, Martin, Jones, et al) suffer as a result.  Montero, who hit .328/.406/.590 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in his first 69 plate appearances after being called up last summer, instantly becomes Seattle’s best hitter.  Even better, he turns the black hole that existed at DH for the Mariners last season into a possible league-leading asset.  Montero is joined in the lineup by two other exciting young hitters, second baseman Dustin Ackley and first baseman Justin Smoak.  Additionally, a full year from outfielder Mike Carp could provide another 25 home-run bat, if his half season of success in 2011 is any indication of his potential.

While there is a lot of improvement expected on the offensive side of the ledger, Seattle’s run prevention will take a significant hit.  The Mariners might be pushing the idea that Safeco can mask the flaws of certain pitchers a bit too far.  Seattle plans to begin the season with Kevin Millwood, Hector Noesi, and an unknown Japanese import Hisashi Iwakuma slated to start about half their games.  Millwood’s last stint in the American League, with Baltimore in 2010, resulted in a 5.10 ERA, Noesi is an untested throw-in from the Pineda deal, and Iwakuma is no Yu Darvish.  The Mariners are going to score more runs this year but they’re going to give up a lot more too.

Seattle had to go down this path, and from a roster construction standpoint, the offensive parts are in place to be competitive over the next three to five years.  Hernandez is a tremendous anchor for the staff and if things go well from an offensive development standpoint this year, the Mariners can explore getting Hernandez more help in 2013.  For this year Mariner fans will be treated to a lot of movement on the basepaths, more activity on the scoreboard, and hopefully, a few more wins as well.

Oddsmakers’ expectations:  As mentioned in the A’s essay yesterday, oddsmakers’ consensus is that the Mariners will fight it out with Oakland to stay out of the AL West cellar.  While there is little doubt that outlook is correct, as with the A’s, I foresee a few more wins than reflected in the total wins markets.  The Mariners are listed, similar to the A’s at 72 wins.  My model calls for the over but in choosing between one team or the other to exceed that total, it prefers Oakland.  Also like Oakland, Seattle has no shot at winning this division – or more accurately no shot at which you’ll be adequately compensated for backing them.    

2012 Outlook:

76-86 – Fourth in AL West

670 Runs Scored       713 Runs Allowed


Mop Up Duty:

Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball*  (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.

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