On July 19, the Seattle Mariners had to cope with yet another loss. They lost 3-6 against the Minnesota Twins as the bullpen gave up some late runs. Seattle sat 10 games behind the division lead. With a 47-48 record, it seemed this team might not even be in the hunt for the Wild Card by the season’s end.
Since then, they have been the hottest team in baseball as they ripped off a pair of eight-game winning streaks. They fought their way to the top of the American League West, firmly in the mix as a legitimate playoff contender. Their 21-6 (.778%) record in August was their best month of the season following a 17-9 (.654%) July that had been their best up until that point.
The past few months have showcased the highlights and potential of a team that has seen its offense and pitching both firing at the same time. Do the Mariners have what it takes to win the division? Here are three important notes that could alter their chances at a championship.
Are the Mariners Good? Three X-Factors for the Playoff Race
The Mariners have a handful of big-name hitters in the lineup, led by last year’s Rookie of the Year Julio Rodríguez. While he has played like an MVP in recent weeks, the rest of the offense will need to keep up their run of play, too.
The Mariners are a strikeout-heavy bunch. It’s not a death knell, but they sure don’t mind a whiff here and there. On the season, they have the second-highest team strikeout rate. Even during their wildly successful run since August 1, they have a 25.6% strikeout rate, which is the sixth-highest in that span. They trail only the Philadelphia Phillies in team wRC+ since then, so they managed to be successful despite this trait.
But it is a worrying trend. Players like Suárez will be key to their postseason chances and he is tied for the highest strikeout rate on the team with Teoscar Hernandez at 30.5%. Players with lots of strikeouts tend to be prone to hot and cold streaks. Suárez’s production has largely been an inverse of high strikeouts leading to poor production, or a better plate approach seeing his performance improve. In July, Suárez had a 129 wRC+ despite striking out 31.3% of the time. Since the start of August, he has a 107 wRC+ as his strikeout rate climbed to 36.2%.
There are some encouraging signs for Suárez despite a drop in production compared to previous seasons. His expected stats against fastballs are much better this season, even if his actual performance has not shown results for it. He is still hitting the ball hard. However, his performance against breaking and offspeed pitches is more concerning. His expected wOBA against breaking pitches is down from .283 to .259, and the drop in production against offspeed pitches is even worse from .360 to .246.
Suárez has shown the ability to carry an offense and that player is still in there. The whiffs might lead to some cold streaks, but once October comes, he is a player capable of lifting an entire team. If the Mariners are going to play like they have on their wild win streaks in the playoffs, Suárez will be a big part of their success.
This Seattle rotation is loaded. Their top four starters all have an ERA (and fielding-independent pitching) in the 3.00’s. George Kirby has been the most valuable by Wins Above Replacement, racking up 4.0 WAR, as Logan Gilbert (3.1) and Luis Castillo (3.0) have done their part in turning this rotation into a monster.
Kirby has largely been the model of the consistency for this team. While the offense was a major storyline in Seattle’s epic division comeback, Kirby had a 2.84 ERA from July 1 to August 12. Kirby is infamous for his ability to pound the strike zone and avoid walks. Despite challenging hitters like this, he has a fantastic groundball rate and avoids giving up home runs.
This style has been countered by opponents in recent weeks, though. In his past three starts, Kirby has a 6.14 ERA over only 14 2/3 innings. He’s been allowing harder contact, more flyballs, and hitters have been aggressive against him. After his recent three-inning, three run outing against the New York Mets in which he gave up six hits, Kirby described this dynamic: “They swing a lot. I have the problem sometimes living in the zone a lot; some guys just swing aggressively. So I’ve got to do a better job just getting under the zone and getting them to chase. But they’re a good team.”
Over this three-game stretch, opponents are swinging more often at pitches in the zone without chasing any more. He has the pitch arsenal to adjust to this aggression and the command to make it work. Since the start of August, Kirby is leaning away from his fastball and has been using his splitter more often.
Any path to the postseason will rest on the rotation if the offense stops hitting like it’s a recreational whiffle ball league. Kirby has had an exceptional campaign and this recent slump doesn’t mean he is finished for the season. Ultimately, he is a unique pitcher, but he has had great success with this style. If the Mariners make it to October, it will be fascinating to watch him take on the best of the best.
The Mariners boast an impressive lineup behind Rodríguez. Their role players have played an important, uh, role in their sudden climb to the top of the division. Fourteen players with at least 80 plate appearances have a wRC+ of at least 100 for Seattle.
The catchers have been a surprising group this season. Cal Raleigh (115 wRC+) and Tom Murphy (139 wRC+) have combined for 32 home runs. Raleigh is having a career year as he has reduced his strikeout rate and increased his walk rate in all three seasons.
The outfield is full of noteworthy players, as well. Dominic Canzone has impressed in his time in Seattle. He has been an above-average player since being traded to the Mariners, as he has continued to improve and show enough power to be a threat in the middle of the lineup. Over his past 72 plate appearances, Canzone has a 130 wRC+ with six doubles and four home runs. He has the best hard-hit percentage on the team since August 1.
Dylan Moore has been making less hard contact, but he has still been an above-average bat this season. Sam Haggerty doesn’t lift the ball enough or hit breaking balls well, but he has been making hard contact consistently and is a fast runner. J.P. Crawford has been having his career-best season at the plate, despite poor defensive play at shortstop.
The Mariners’ lineup doesn’t quite match up with a team like the Atlanta Braves, but they have good hitters up and down their lineup. That ability to scratch together runs from anywhere in the lineup is a necessity in the playoffs. These unheralded players have been a large part of the Mariners’ exceptional run in the second half.
Seattle has turned a mediocre season into one of the most thrilling storylines in baseball. The lineup is fun to watch and the pitchers can all dominate on their day. The Mariners still have to put together a strong September in order to secure the division, but if they make the playoffs, watch out. This team is dangerous.
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