The Seattle Mariners are in first place. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
While it may be only the end of May, at this time last year the Mariners were 24-26 in the midst of a 7-game losing streak and by all indications, really weren’t going to get any better as the season went on.
Now, with a sparkling 27-18 record that includes an 18-7 road record, the best in the majors, they sit atop of the American League West division with a 1-1/2 game lead on the Texas Rangers.
What’s different? Statistically, not much from last year. Mariners have scored 21 more times than 2015, have 30 more RBI’s, increased walks by 13 and reduced strike outs by 62. Not significant increases that indicate a magic bullet for the improvement over last year.
Pitching stats show a better picture: Lowered ERA from 3.78 to 3.20, allowed 80 less hits and 54 less runs scored and decreased the walks by 31. Pitching staff has done a real nice job keeping opposing runners off base.
Perhaps it is the change in philosophy from the Jack Zduriencik/Lloyd McClendon days. The 2015 Mariners had high expectations picked by some to be in the World Series. But after 7 disappointing seasons, the plug had to be pulled.
No sense in going over what happened last year…we all know that last year’s team was uninspired to put it mildly. It seemed to me that players didn’t care about winning…and part of that could be the decisions to play players out of position such as Brad Miller and Dustin Ackley. It can be important to one’s morale to play a position they want to play and feel they are good at instead of being placed anywhere on the diamond.
I also would have to blame a lot on Jack Zdurencik’s ability to evaluate players:
- Justin Smoak, in the five years he played for Seattle, had a batting average of .226, struck out about 87 times a year and while he showed flashes of power, more often than not, he ground into double plays.
- His replacement, Logan Morrison, wasn’t much better. He did have a solid season in 2014 hitting .262 with 11 home runs but only drove in 38 runs in 336 at bats. His performance dropped considerably in 2015, hitting a paltry .225, showing more power with 17 home runs and driving in 54. But he was more known for assisting Fernando Rodney in shooting make-believe arrows.
- Ackley, a highly touted player coming out of college, hit decent in his 4 years with a .250 batting average. But he never looked comfortable at the plate and getting moved around defensively probably messed with his head.
- Mike Zunino is perhaps Zdurencik’s biggest mistake. Evaluated him correctly but promoted him way too fast. Drafted in 2012, he zoomed thru A to AAA ball and with a mere 159 minor league games under his belt (59 at AAA level), he became the Mariners starting catcher in 2013. 2015 was epically bad as Zunino hit .174 and struck out 132 times in 350 at bats. He was able to hit 11 home runs and played great defense at catcher. But he was a black hole in the line-up.
So what is different between this year and last year? For one thing, after the initial 3-6 start, they have gotten off to a way better start over the first 46 games. First place in the American League West with a game and a half lead over the Rangers. Last year? At the end of May, they were 24-26, in fourth place, 6 and half games behind the Houston Astros.
I also am a big believer in how Jerry Dipoto and his team with the type of players they brought in, those with good on base percentage and getting more balls in play. Dipoto and first-year manager Scott Servais also did a real smart thing when spring training opened.
Early in camp, each day, Servais had players stand up during the morning meetings to discuss their backgrounds. It could go from explaining how they got into the big leagues, who they admire the most and what difficulties they overcame to get where they are. They also spoke about any hobbies they might have. That’s important in a team environment. It shows that players may have common interests and could form bonds outside of baseball which in turn, can form a high level of trust on the field.
Some examples of how this brought the team together:
- Reliever Tony Zych said he liked to play pool. Servais asked if he was any good and Zych said yes. Servais tasked Zych to get a pool table in the clubhouse the next day. Second baseman Robison Cano ponied up to cover the cost. The next day, Servais and Zych played. Servais played the first shot, sank it and then missed his next. Zych never gave his manager another shot as he ran the table, much to the delight of the team.
- Comedian Domingo Ayala delivered one liners and jokes for a day.
- Pitcher Danny Hultzen was assigned to deliver a world daily report which later expanded to Nori Aoki doing reports on Japan and Nelson Cruz on the Dominican Republic.
- When Cano’s team beat Cruz’s team in a situational hitting contest, Cruz had to buy steak and shrimp for the entire Mariner complex
Team chemistry, one of the most overlooked aspects of the game, was being developed. And it starts with Servais whose style is to keep things positive. He likes to keep it loose but when it’s time to work, you have to be ready. Servais made it a point to spend almost 95% of spring training on team-building with the goal to develop equity and trust with players.
I’d say he’s achieved his goal.
We all know the crux of this team is Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager. None have disappointed this year and Cano, now healthy, is putting together a monster year. But other players, like Leonys Martin. He is hitting .262 with 9 home runs, which is already a career high. Prior to coming to the Mariners, he had 20 career home runs…he keeps hitting like this and he’ll have 20 by mid-July!
How about Seth Smith, playing solid defense out in right field and an OPB of .376 which is great for the number 2 guy in the line-up.
And Chris Iannetta, brought in until Mike Zunino can claim his spot back, with some timely hits including one walk-off home run.
And how about those situational players such as Dae-Ho Lee, whose walk off home run against the Rangers in April snapped a 6-game losing streak. Or Franklin Gutierrez who smacked a monster home run against the Reds last week.
These players have brought an attitude that we haven’t seen since 2001 Mariners when they won 116 games.
And the pitching! Did anyone expect Wade Miley to be 5-2 and be such an innings eater? Or that Nathan Karns would beat out James Paxton for the number 5 slot and be 4-1 with a 3.53 ERA?
How about a bullpen that was much maligned last year, coming in with a 2.62 ERA with 13 saves and 32 holds and an average of 9.87 strikeouts per nine innings.
This team is getting runs, making opposing pitchers work, playing good defense and not letting the other teams score.
We know that the major league season is 162 games…we also know that at some point during the season, the Mariners are going to go thru a tough patch. But I think with the make-up of this team and the chemistry it has, that tough patch will be a short one.
This team has a chance to be in the playoffs…and if they get there, I’d put some money on them getting to the World Series and winning it.