Out of right field: Mariners getting harsh dose of reality on the road
I hate to say, “’I told you so.”
Wait, no I don’t.
A week ago, folks were giddy with excitement with the success the Seattle Mariners experienced through the first 40 percent of the season.
Best start in decades through 70 games. Virtual tie for first in the American League West. A full 20 games above .500. A 23-10 record in one-run games.
They had the look of a juggernaut. If not that, they at least looked to have a good shot to halt the longest streak in sports for not qualifying for the playoffs.
As a certain college football analyst likes to say, “Not so fast, my friends.”
Five consecutive losses and six out of nine will sober up a fan base real quickly.
Those of us who look at baseball from more of an analytical standpoint rather than a purely romantic or anecdotal point of view knew two things all along before buying into the “Miracle Mariners.”
1. The mid-June 10-day East Coast road trip was looming;
2. The Mariners’ luck was going to even out at some point.
Whether they will be serious contenders this season or just a first-half feel-good story will depend on how they deal with both of the above.
So far? Not particularly good.
Before we go further, I will admit that the M’s have wildly outplayed even the rosiest of forecasts anyone could have predicted in the preseason.
But only moms and mascots would have predicted a pennant for the Mariners this season.
Most prognosticators, myself included, had them around .500 and perhaps lingering long enough to challenge for the second wild-card spot.
So when mid-June rolled around and the M’s were neck-and-neck with the defending World Series champions for first place in the division, it’s understandable that fans and media alike would be fawning over the unlikely contenders.
But baseball usually has a way of evening things out. The season is six months long and playoff series are seven games for a good reason.
Time is the only way to separate contenders from pretenders.
More than 120 years of baseball stats show us one primary thing: Win/loss records are primarily driven by a team’s average number of runs scored and runs allowed, known by Sabermetricians as Pythagorean winning percentage.
That doesn’t bode well for the Mariners.
Seattle has scored 335 runs and allowed 325 through Friday. Based on those numbers, the M’s record should be 39-37 – much closer to the predicted .500 record than the division-challenging record they boast today.
The primary difference in Mariners projections and reality is their record in one-run games.
We know, without any doubt on the issue, that one-run game performance is not sustainable.
Usually a full season of baseball will prove that out and a team’s record in such games will creep closer to even.
There are outliers, of course. The mediocre-on-paper 2012 Baltimore Orioles went 29-9 in one-run games and finished 93-69 – earning a wild-card berth.
That was the highest winning percentage (76 percent) in one-run games in MLB history, dating back to 1901. The Mariners are currently 69.6 percent in one-run games.
Could history, in this specific instance, be repeating itself? Maybe. But highly doubtful.
Several years ago, noted baseball analyst Bill James showed that some teams are marginally better in one-run games than others. But he also concluded that those teams show two fundamental traits: They play small ball (sacrifice hits, stolen bases, fewer home runs) and have good pitching.
Oh, and those teams are usually considered “elite” anyway. Think the 1927 New York Yankees, who went 110-44. Even they were “only” 24-19 in one-run games.
The Mariners have some good pitching (seventh in the A.L. in runs allowed per game), but not nearly enough. They have a bunch of five-inning starters. The bullpen is starting to looked taxed.
And their offense is in no way predicated on doing the little things. They mash. And, much of the time lately, get mashed.
So be excited. Enjoy the wins. Maybe the next six days go better than the previous week.
There’s a lot of baseball left. I guess that was my point all along.