The Mariners’ Bumpy Ride

In 2007, the Seattle Mariners went 88-75 and finished second in the AL West, 6 1/2 games off the division and wild card paces.

In 2008, they added Erik Bedard, and with Felix Hernandez now 22 and ready to pitch 200 big league innings, they went 61-101 and finished 39 games behind the Angels.

In 2009, their biggest offseason acqusitions were defensive specialist Franklin Gutierrez and middling reliever-turned closer David Aardsma. The Mariners went 85-77 and challenged for the wild card into September.

In 2010, they made a push for the division title, signing Ace Cliff Lee and bringing in Chone Figgins to replace the underperforming Adrian Beltre. Again, they went 61-101, the worst record in the American League, despite King Felix’s Cy Young performance.

In 2011, the Mariners seemed committed to rebuilding, promoting Michael Pineda into the rotation and bringing up Michael Saunders and Carlos Peguero, sacrificing the current season for the future. Sure enough, the Mariners sit one game over .500, in second place in the American League.

It’s been a bumpy ride for Mariners fans, but the truth is that the good teams and bad teams really haven’t been all that different. The 2007 team had the run differential of a 79-84 team, but outplayed it by nine games. The ’08 edition was certainly worse, but their run differential suggested 66 wins, rather than 61. In ’09, they were the luckiest (or best-managed) team in baseball, playing like a 75-win team, but winning ten more games. Last year, the luck was still there, but the talent was gone, as Figgins’ disappointing year (1.1 fWAR, his worst since ’06), Ichiro Suzuki’s aging (4.5 fWAR, his worst since ’05), and Cliff Lee’s midseason departure left them with the run differential of a 57-win team. This year’s model is again playing better than its expected record, having scored nine fewer runs than it’s surrendered.

Most teams finish easch season within two to three actual wins of their expected win total. There are various theories as to why a team might win more or fewer games than expected. Managers tend to get a lot of credit (probably more than they are due) for their bullpen use and late-game substitutions that help win one-run games. Since 2007, the Mariners have used six managers (Mike Hargrove, John McLaren, Jim Riggleman, Don Wakamatsu, Daren Brown, and Eric Wedge). Wedge aside, none of these managers had a winning record in this Mariner tenure, and none left town on especially good terms. I think it’s safe to say that managerial genius didn’t lead to the Mariners’ consistent overperformance (Wakamatsu did seem to have a magic touch in ’09, but he bombed in ’10 with a more expensive roster).

A great bullpen can sometimes help weaker teams win more close games. Led by JJ Putz and his 1.38 ERA and 2.3 WAR, the ’07 Mariners had fielding independent pitching of 4.00, third best in the AL (FIP is a better measure of bullpen effectiveness than ERA, as runs surrendered by a bullpen are often assigned as earned runs on a starter’s record). The ’08 bullpen was just below league average (4.29 FIP, and less than half the ’07 bullpen’s WAR). In ’09, with Putz gone, the bullpen FIP was up to 4.35, ninth in the AL. Last year’s pen, with Aardsma at the helm, was the third-worst bullpen in the American League, with a 4.40 FIP despite lower scoring throughout baseball. While the relievers’ effectiveness might help explain 2007’s overperformance, the trend line does not correlate with the trend of exceeding the team’s run differential in any meaningful way.

That leaves us with one viable explanation for the Mariners’ strange results over the past five seasons: luck. When a team is as bad as last year’s Mariners were, it’s hard to call them lucky, but they really should have won even fewer games. The 2007 and 2009 teams were two of the luckiest teams in the last half-decade, routinely winning close games and losing blowouts and looking like decent teams to the naked eye despite rosters not built to contend for division titles.

All this brings us to last night’s meltdown. Doug Fister was brilliant in holding the Nationals to one run on three hits over eight innings, striking out three and walking one. The Mariners led 5-1 entering the ninth, when beleaguered closer Brandon League (who hasn’t been all that bad except for one week in May, when he took four losses in four games- I just like calling him be”league”red) came in and gave up a two-base error to Jayson Werth. After a walk, League got Ryan Zimmerman to hit into a double play that would have ended the game if not for the error. The next batter, Michael Morse, who should never have come to the plate, hit a liner off League’s beleaguered leg, knocking him out of the game. If the ball misses League’s leg, it’s probably a game-ending groundout. David Pauley replaced League and gave up back-to-back RBI singles before Wilson Ramos ended the game with a three-run homer.

If that ninth inning is not bad luck, I don’t know what is.

The Mariners are trending in the right direction. They’re getting huge contributions from Pineda and have replaced Figgins, possibly the worst player in the major leagues this year, with hot prospect Dustin Ackley. They have what might be the best rotation in the American League and a bullpen with a 3.64 FIP, their best in more than five years (Pauley had been particularly effective until his unsustainable 2.21 batting average on balls in play caught up with him last night).

The Mariners can’t slug with the Rangers or play smallball with the Angels. Their pitching will take a hit when Pineda nears his innings limit for the season and has to take a few starts off. They looked like the worst team in the AL West by a wide margin before this season began. Despite all that, they’re 37-36, second in the AL West, and just two games behind the Rangers. If everything breaks just right, they could contend for a division title. But every division title is the result of some amount of luck, and with luck anything like what they experienced last night, the Mariners aren’t going anywhere.

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