Mariners power surge propels playoff push

Bleacher Report photo

 

Memorial Day in the United States marks the unofficial first day of summer and a time when teams can be evaluated with some real weight, determining the direction for franchises as the dog days of summer approach.

New Seattle Mariners’ general manager Jerry Dipoto took this team that was supposed to contend for the World Series last summer into the car wash, got clean, dried off and they are here now.

His first order of business last offseason was to find the right man to lead this team. Former skipper Lloyd McClendon was shown the door and Dipoto brought in Scott Servais, a former major league catcher for 11 seasons. This is Servais first managing opportunity. He was previously an assistant general manager with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Servais claims to understand the urgency to win now.

“Seattle hasn’t been in the playoffs in 14 years,” Servais said. “There’s a fan base there that surely jumped on board with the Seahawks and what they’ve done up there football-wise.

“They’ll get on board if you win. But you have to win. Last year’s team at this time there were a lot of high expectations. And they didn’t get off to a good start; people get disappointed. But it’s a new regime. We’ll see what happens.”

Dipoto’s offseason wasn’t highlighted by sexy signings or blockbuster trades. He added a few castaways and resurrection projects with hopes of finding a match to go along with the core in place. His best move was plucking Leonys Martin from the Texas Rangers, along with renovating his bullpen with productive arms such as Joaquin Benoit, Joel Peralta and Steve Cishek.

The Mariners have rebounded nicely from a quiet 2-6 skid to start to the season and entered the long weekend series with the Minnesota Twins with the second best record in the American League at 28-18.

“The game is about a series of five-, six-week pockets. Where we are on May 11 is we have 20 more wins that we won’t have to accrue later. They’re all important,” Dipoto said earlier in the month to the Associated Press. “The season is long and what you’re doing is building up equity because sometimes in this league it’s feast or famine. Through the first (34) games we feasted. We put ourselves in a good position. We’re not always going to go as good as we’re going now but there is no reason why we can’t play consistently as well as we have played.”

The Mariners have been good, really good. The type of good people expected from them last year, but not this year. With a fairly similar roster makeup to last years’ squad, just how is this team doing it? More importantly, is it sustainable?

Life can be made a lot easier when the $240 million all-star second basemen plays like it’s 2010 again.

Entering his third season with the Mariners, Robinson Cano might finally be earning that ludicrous, lucrative contract he signed in 2014.

Signs in spring training hinted at a revitalized Cano. During one of the Mariners final cactus league games, Cano blasted off as if he was at Cape Canaveral, swatting three dingers; one to left, one to right and one to centre, off the Chicago Cubs. Since then, he hasn’t looked back.

What a difference a year makes. This time last year, Cano was hitting .253 with one home run and 13 RBI. Following Wednesday’s 16-4 thrashing of the San Diego Padres, Cano is hitting .293 with 15 bombs, 44 RBI with a .931 OPS. This was the player the Mariners have been waiting for, an MVP-candidate to lead them to the playoffs.

“As a player you go home, you prepare yourself for a good season and the best thing is when you start early,” Cano said. “You look at my start last year, it was a tough first half. … But you want to start from the first game of the year. … We’ve played a different game this year. Hopefully it continues.”

Healthy again, Cano has been bankable with runners on and he is on track for a colossal season. He’s tied for third in the MLB in home runs, second in RBI and has reached base in 28-straight games. Looking more balanced at the plate this year, he is on pace for nearly 50 homers with 145 RBI (both would smash his previous career highs).

It’s not just Cano who has been on fire this year, the Mariners are receiving production up and down the lineup.

Last season the Mariners were slightly anemic on offence. They owned the third worst average in the AL (.249), scored the third fewest runs (656), drove in the fourth fewest RBI (624), struck out the second most (1,336) and recorded the third worst run differential (-70). They finished 12 games back of first place and fourth in the division at 76-86.

This season, a much more balanced attack has lead the Mariners to a +65 run differential, which sits third among MLB clubs. They have cranked the most home runs (77), fifth most RBI (248) and they rank sixth with OPS of .771.

This is a relentless, scrappy, interchangeable lineup that manufactures runs. It’s a new approach away from the 90s New York Yankees rally of getting two guys on and waiting for the three-run bomb. Power hitters have historically seen their numbers sapped in the thick coastal air at Safeco Field.

When wildebeests like Nelson Cruz don’t mind sacrificing his batting average in RBI situations, then neither should any of his teammates.

Back on May 22, the Mariners trailed 3-0 early on the road in Cincinnati with runners on second and third for Cruz, none out. Middle-of-the-order guys sometimes fall into a trap and try to do too much in that situation. A home run would have easily tied the game, which would have been nothing new for Cruz who bashed 44 homers last year and did this last week. Instead, Cruz took what he was given and didn’t try to tie the game in one swing. He grounded out to the second basemen Brandon Phillips for the RBI as the Mariners chipped away at the deficit and later won 5-4.

“It’s not like somebody’s going to hit a homer to get us going. Just a number of good at-bats. Somebody gets a walk, somebody gets a hit, a sac fly. It’s what it takes. Nobody puts too much pressure on themselves or expects to do it every day. Everybody just goes out and does their jobs,” Servais said following the come-from-behind win.

And that’s how the Mariners go about business at the dish. They will gladly take the home runs when they present themselves, but they don’t rely on them. The Mariners currently sit fifth in the MLB and second in the AL with 112 wRC+ (weight runs created plus: a sabermetrics designed to show how offences compare against the rest of the league on an even playing field). They are middle of the pack on drawing walks, but they sacrifice bunt the fifth most in the AL and tied for ninth in baseball with 14 sacrifice flies. It’s all about keeping the line moving.

When it comes down to crunch time, the Mariners have driven in the second-most RBI in the MLB from the seventh inning onward, 87. They’re OPS when trailing is .723, good enough for fourth-best in the AL. When the game is tied, their OPS jump up to .801.

During a night game May 14, against the Angels, the Mariners trailed 6-2 in the eighth when they busted out for five runs in the bottom half.

“What a comeback,” Servais said, despite the Mariners surrendering the lead in the top of the ninth. “It says a lot about our team and the kind of effort we threw out there was awesome to see.”

Much of the Mariner comebacks and rallies occur when the machine of Cruz, Cano and Kyle Seager begin to fire. They are able to drive in so many runs (113 combined) since the M’s carry the second best OBP in the AL at .327.

Like most great lineups, it’s the men at the top that gets the party going.

Ketel Marte has shown signs of being productive on both sides of the ball during his second season with the club.

There has been a long line of Mariner shortstops that can pick it on defence, but are detrimental on offence (you know who you are; Brendon Ryan, Brad Miller, Jack Wilson and Chris Taylor).

But this guy seems looks the part. The 22-year-old hasn’t registered 500 MLB at bats and he’s hitting .280 for his career. He has some work to do, as with most young players. Marte has struck out 31 times with only seven walks this season.

The Mariners caught lightning in a bottle this summer with the acquisition of Leonys Martin. He swatted a walk-off bomb against the Oakland Athletics last week as he already set a new career high in home runs (9). He is also on track to smash his RBI high (49); he sits with 20 at the moment. It’s been a great start for the centre fielder, even though he might take hacks like a 35+ home run hitter, it’s hard to imagine him finishing near the top of the league in bombs.

Unfortunately, both Martin and Marte were sidelined last week with a few minor injures (Martin pulled a hamstring and Marte sprained his left thumb). Both should return from the 15-day disabled list ready for action.

Until the two young leadoff hitters return in two weeks, the Mariners and manager Servais are going to have to keep plugging in hitters until they find someone who can reach base with some consistency. In their wake, Luis Sardinas (shortstop) and Stefen Romero (left field) combined to go 0-for-6 with five strikeouts in a 7-2 loss Friday night to the Twins.

“We gotta score runs, we gotta pitch, gotta pick it up a little bit because of the loss of those two players,” Servais said.

It’s not just the top half of the lineup that is getting it done; it’s been all the sidepieces of this Mariner offence that keeps the engine going. Cruz, Cano and Seager (who has been on fire in May hitting .346 with a 1.001 OPS) play the piano, but the rest of the team carries carry the piano. Each night it seems like another castaway steps up offensively to help out to the big three.

The new Asian sensation, Dae-Ho Lee, a platoon first basemen, won over Mariner fans’ hearts following his first MLB home run, a walk off two-run crush-job against the Rangers April 13. Signed to a minor league deal, Lee has cranked seven home runs and 16 RBI in 75 at bats.

“Dae-Ho has been great, especially not playing everyday. To come in and put together the quality at bats that he’s been doing is pretty special,” Seager said. “He’s been playing a really good job at first base over there as well which has kind of gone under the radar.”

A monster 2-homer, 6-RBI performance last Wednesday against the A’s helped pad Adam Lind’s blue-collar platoon season. The journeyman first basemen is hitting .259 with six homers, 23 RBI. But Lind is nearly ten years removed from a 35 HR, 114 RBI Silver Slugger award-winning season and can’t be relied on to produce similar type games.

One thing that remains constant, from season to season for the past 11 years, has been the performance of the King, Felix Hernandez (by the way, Felix is PISSED that he got left out of the worst haircut discussion earlier with his blonde goatee and blonde long hair).

Hernandez is dialed once again this summer; opponents are hitting .217 off him and when you break down what guys are hitting off each pitch, it only gets nastier and nastier.

He is still throwing nothing straight. Clearly Hernandez isn’t as worried about his drop in velocity (fastball down to 90.7 MPH) which he throws 13.5 per cent of the time. It is still only getting hit to a .233 average. If PED’s aren’t legal, then it doesn’t make sense how the King’s changeup is legal. He throws his strikeout pitch 8.8 per cent of the time and hitters are only hitting .188 against it because it simply disappears into oblivion.

Having an ace must be one of the most rewarding feelings in sports. You can be buried in debt, have a tree fall through the roof of your garage or accidentally drive off a bridge on your commute home; none of that matters because Hernandez is going to go out and shred teams. For the past eight years, Hernandez has been as perpetual as the chocolate fountain at the Golden Corral. He has completed over 200 innings while keeping his ERA under 3.47.

With Hernandez leading the way, the Mariners boast the best statistical pitching staff in the AL. Their ERA is the lowest at 3.36 to go along with the lowest opponents batting average (.232) and WHIP (1.19).

The Mariners starting rotation has been a rarity 50 games into the season; they have only used five starters. They haven’t had to force a reliever into a day-game start or call upon a prospect from the minors.

The rest of the rotation is a bit of an interesting mix as they try and back up Hernandez.

Former ERA champ Hisashi Iwakuma has been touched up early. His ERA has ballooned up to 4.33 and hitters are getting after him, hitting .286.

The struggle has been real for former top-prospect Taijuan Walker. Entering his fourth season and only 23-years-old, Walker has lowered his ERA over a full run from 4.56 last year to 3.31 this year despite his 2-5 record. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is up, but so are his home runs per nine innings. He has allowed 12 dingers so far.

Don’t expect anyone to bet the house when it’s Wade Miley’s turn in the rotation. With a 5-2 record, his ERA is dangerously close to breaking into the 5s, but pitched his first career complete game shutout April 30 against the defending World Series champions.

Keeping the ball in the ballpark has been a bit of a concern for Servais so far, the Mariners have allowed 59 home runs, the second most for any team leading a division or holding a wildcard spot.

The most reliable part of the pitching staff hangs out in between Edgar’s Cantina and The ‘Pen.

Look around the AL and you will find championship-caliber teams locked and loaded with bulletproof bullpens ready to seal the deal on any lead turned over to them. The Mariners have developed one of the stingiest bullpens in the league with the least amount of star power.

The Mariners bullpen has been stifling to this point. Their 2.53 ERA is the second best in baseball. They have the fifth most holds with 34, their K/9 is fourth best at 9.96, they have the lowest WHIP (1.09) and are tied with the lowest opponents batting average at .190.

Banished from south beach, sidewinder closer Steve Cishek found a new home in the left field bullpen. He has converted 12 of 15 save opportunities and has fanned 27 batters in 23.1 innings with only seven walks.

Servais also has the perfect stepping stones to bridge the gap from the rotation to Cishek.

Mike Montgomery is the lefty specialist; holding lefties to a .111 average and righties to a .217 average, and hasn’t surrendered an earned run to a right-handed hitter.

Nick Vincent joined the M’s pen after three years with the Padres. All he has done is erased nearly every right-handed hitter in his path while leaving a trail of bat shrapnel along the way. Up until last week, righties were 2-for-43 off him. Since then, righties average has risen like the morning sun to .176. He also boasts a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 19-1 in 14.2 innings.

If there ever is a double play needed, Servais can call in the veteran Vulcan changeup specialist Joaquin Benoit. He induces groundballs at a 42.9 per cent rate, second highest of his 15-year career.

Maybe the Mariners are for real. Maybe this was the team so many were picking to come out of the AL last October. Whatever the case may be, despite their encouraging start, they were recently knocked off their perch atop the division after getting swept by the bumbling Twins. With the Rangers a half game up, this division should be a bar fight the rest of the way.

“We’ve always felt we had a pretty good team. We have a lot of confidence in each other. The way we’re constructed is pretty good, it looks like. Everybody is excited for what could happen,” Seager said.

There is meaningful baseball in the Pacific Northwest once again. After the Toronto Blue Jays removed their name from the longest playoff drought list last season, the Mariners are the new clubhouse leader — 14 years and counting since October baseball.

If the Mariners and their cast of resurrection projects can keep finding ways to produce runs on offence while pitching the crap out of the ball, Servais and Dipoto might be passing the longest drought baton to Michael Hill and Don Mattingly of the Miami Marlins.

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