The Seattle Mariners averaged 98 wins per season from 2000-2003, including 116 victories in 2001, setting the American League record and tying the MLB record set by the Chicago Cubs in 1906. Since 2004, the Mariners have averaged 73 wins per season and have not made the playoffs. This season, however, the Mariners have gotten off to a fast start. The consensus prediction seemed to be that Seattle would finish in third place in the AL West, behind the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros, but the Mariners are 30-21 and a half-game behind Texas for first place. Their Pythagorean record suggests that they have been a little unlucky and should actually be 32-19, two games better. What have the keys been for the Mariners’ success this season, and is their hot start sustainable?
The most important factor has been their improved offense, which is the second-best in the AL behind the Boston Red Sox. They’re averaging 5.02 runs per game, nearly a full run better than last season’s 4.05, which was 13th in the AL. Led by early MVP favorite Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, they’ve hit the most home runs in the major leagues. Despite playing in heavily pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, they’ve actually hit more home runs at home than on the road.
Cano is having one of the best years of his career, hitting .291/.352/.583 with 15 home runs, while Cruz is getting on base at a pretty good clip, batting .295/.392/.508 and chipping in 10 home runs. Third baseman Kyle Seager has gotten in on the action, hitting .274/.353/.521 with 10 home runs of his own. Even traditionally light-hitting center fielder Leonys Martin has nine round-trippers. Catcher Chris Iannetta and first baseman Adam Lind are the only regulars with on-base percentages lower than .300. After many years of offensive futility, it remains to be seen whether or not the Mariners can keep scoring at this pace. 51 games is not an insignificant sample size, however, and with veterans like Cano and Cruz to lead the way, it appears that they’re going to keep knocking the ball over the fence in an AL ballpark near you.
The Mariners have pitched well over the last few seasons, and 2016 is not an exception, although this is the part of the team to be the most worried about. They lead the AL in team ERA at 3.37 and batting average against at .232, but the numbers suggest they’ve been lucky a few times. Felix Hernandez‘s ERA comes in at 2.86, but his FIP is more than a run higher at 4.10. Meanwhile, his BABIP against is .256, well below his career mark of .296. Regression to the mean seems inevitable, and more hits are going to start falling in. Hernandez is also walking a lot of hitters, 3.7 per nine innings, and that’s worrisome. He was placed on the DL Wednesday with a strained calf and will be replaced by James Paxton. Hisashi Iwakuma and Wade Miley both have ERAs and FIPs over 4 and are each allowing more than one home run per nine innings. They’ve been bailed out by the offense, who are averaging 6.5 runs per game in their starts. Taijuan Walker has a lot of potential and is pitching pretty well, but the results don’t quite show that. The Mariners’ best pitcher this year has probably been Nate Karns, acquired in an offseason trade with the Tampa Bay Rays. He is striking out nearly a batter per inning and has the best FIP on the team at 3.59. He also is walking 3.3 batters per nine innings, however, and could be even better if he cuts down on those.
The bullpen has been able to pick up the rotation’s slack so far this year. They’ve been the second-best bullpen in the AL with a 2.50 ERA, behind the Royals’ 2.43. Their 1.02 WHIP and .583 OPS against lead the major leagues. They’ve only pitched 154.2 innings, 15th in the AL, which means they haven’t been overworked. The bullpen has been excellent, but if the rotation continues to struggle and Scott Servais has to call on them more often, that could spell trouble.
The Mariners defense has committed the sixth-fewest errors in the AL; they’ve booted the ball 28 times for a .985 fielding percentage. Their best defensive player has been Martin, who already has five DRS, followed by Seager with three and Cano and Iannetta with two each. Their worst defensive player has been Seth Smith, who has already cost the Mariners six runs with his bad outfield defense. Ultimately, the team is about average defensively, with the majority of the roster falling between -1 and 1 DRS.
Seattle appears to be built to contend this season. The main focus for them moving forward should be getting the rotation, usually a big strength for this team, back on track, especially Iwakuma and Hernandez. In the meantime, it appears that this team’s explosive offense and shutdown bullpen can make up for the rotation’s shortcomings, and if Iwakuma and Hernandez can return to their All-Star form, the Mariners will be a strong contender for the AL West title.