Despite being swept by the Los Angeles Angels through a heartbreaking fashion in a three-game series ending May 15, the Seattle Mariners currently hold a 1.5 game lead in the American League West at the latest point in the season since 2002.
Even though many people have been taking the first opportunity to start spouting doom and gloom since the M’s were 2-6 on April 12, the Seattle Mariners are still a force to be reckoned with heading into the heart of the MLB season. The sky is not falling in Seattle, it’s just the usual damp spring rain with home runs from league-leader Robinson Cano sprinkled in.
The M’s ranked third-last in the American League in runs scored last season, finishing the season with 656. This year, they are currently seventh in the American League and also sit at third on the American side in home runs. Cano is not only the league leader in home runs; he is currently putting up MVP caliber statistics, hitting .292 with 42 RBIs and .343 OBP. With Cano finally living up to his 10-year $240 million contract and the slow-starting bats of Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz starting to heat up, it’s finally not too much to expect for the Mariners to be a premier hitting team in the American League.
First-year general manager Jerry Dipoto has installed a system he calls “control the zone” which emphasizes control of the strike zone and count for hitters. “Control the zone” means striking out less and walking more. He references statistics that show nearly a .200 difference in average when hitters are facing a 2-1 count versus a 1-2 count. Dipoto made moves this offseason to acquire players that can do just that, and the relatively low batting averages but high on base percentages of newcomers like Nori Aoki and Chris Iannetta are translating into more base runners touching home.
Statistics aside, it is clear that the Mariners are now a team that is capable of putting up quality numbers. By supporting their pitching staff with timely hits, the M’s can put themselves in the position to win enough ball games to end the postseason drought.
This change in attitude and performance was evidenced versus the ever-pesky Athletics on May 24. Trailing 5-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning, Robinson Cano kicked off an epic comeback with a two-run homer to right-center to bring the Mariners within one. Then, down to his final strike in the ninth, center fielder Leonys Martin launched a towering home run to right field sending both announcers and fans into a frenzy. Pumping his fist and screaming as he rounded the bases, Martin perfectly exemplified the electricity of the new-look Mariners of 2016.
Despite some major lapses in the bullpen versus the Angels last weekend, Dipoto’s pitching staff has performed above expectations with a bullpen containing very few big name players. Mariners pitchers are ranked second in the league in ERA at 3.37 and are tied for second in opponent batting average at .233 with the Cleveland Indians.
King Felix has adapted to his diminishing velocity by reaching new levels of pitch control and remains one of the premier pitchers in the MLB . Newcomer Wade Miley has been a nice addition to the back of the rotation earning three wins already in 2016. The biggest positive has been starting pitcher Taijuan Walker’s emergence of a truly dominant pitcher in Major League Baseball; Walker has a 2.63 ERA and has 38 strikeouts through seven starts.
My main concern is newly acquired closer Steve Cishek. Cishek has blown three-out-of-five of his last save opportunities and was directly responsible for the Mariners losing two games to Anaheim. Mariners fans are still feeling residual panic attacks from the Fernando Rodney experience, and Cishek seems to have the same knack for making spectators perspire. That being said, Cishek still leads the league in saves at 11 and I believe once the Mariners bullpen gets healthy again, a lighter workload will see Cishek become a serviceable closer going forward.
Defensively, the Mariners still have a lot of work to do fielding the ball. They have 22 errors so far this season, tied for fourth-worst in the American League. The good news is that the three teams below them are the Astros, Angels and Athletics, all members of the American League West who play the Mariners several more times this season.
There are still positive signs, and Dipoto’s moves toward faster and more athletic fielders is showing signs of paying off. Ketel Marte is an obvious improvement at short stop over Brad Miller or Chris Taylor and center fielder Leonys Martin’s speed shrinks the outfield significantly. Catcher Chris Iannetta is a very solid defensive presence behind the plate who has a good report with the M’s pitching staff. Then there’s Cano’s ridiculous swagger while playing second base, and you have to love that.