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July 26, 2011

The BP Broadside

The Mariners are Simultaneously Sinking and Treading Water

by Steven Goldman

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Just a few more days to go. On Monday night, the Seattle Mariners lost their 16th consecutive game, falling to the Yankees in a sloppy 10-3 contest that saw them make two errors and numerous other misplays. It was not an atypical game for a team that has scored just 2.7 runs per game during this stretch while allowing 6.1. And yet, the Mariners’ freefall must run another six games before they break the American League record of 21 straight losses set by the Orioles in April 1988, and they have to toss up another eight in a row before they dethrone the 1960 Phillies and their 23 straight losses.

The 2011 Mariners have a lot in common with that long-ago Phillies club. The roster contained more than its share of has-beens, never-weres, and never-would-bes; throughout that season they added solid contributors like Johnny Callison, and Tony Gonzalez, who would star on the ill-fated but still quite successful 1964 team that won 92 games. In the same way, the Mariners have added Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda. Of course, the Phillies lost 95 games that year and 107 the next before they finally broke through and posted the first of what would be six years of winning records.

Until then, the Mariners remain a team that can pitch, even if they aren’t doing so right now, but can’t hit  at all. Their offense is so bad that you might say it’s historic. They have nine players with over 100 plate appearances batting under .230, and nearly half of them are under .200. According to WARP, their best player is Brendan Ryan, a sweet-fielding but light-hitting shortstop who was lightly dispensed with by a Cardinals team desperate for middle infielders. Even the ageless Ichiro Suzuki is scuffling, and Justin Smoak, who looked as if he was going to justify his part in the Cliff Lee deal early on, has completely disappeared, hitting .206/.296/.358 since April ended.

The Mariners are scoring the fewest runs per game in baseball, and have the lowest OPS+ at 79. That they are under 80 should be a clue that something special is going on—as Baseball-Reference calculates the statistic, in all of modern baseball history there have been just 93 teams that have hit so poorly as to put up an adjusted OPS under 80. Only 37 of them have come in the last 60 years, and only four have been part of our glorious century, the last two came in 2004, when the Arizona Diamondbacks and Montreal Expos finished at 77 and 78, respectively. That Arizona team was special. Despite Randy Johnson contributing an excellent season, the club lost 111 games.

BP’s True Average stat takes a more benign view of the Mariners’ offense. By its lights, the worst offense of the last 60 years belonged to the 1972 Texas Rangers (77 OPS+) which had a lineup consisting of aging giant Frank Howard, Toby Harrah in a bad year, and almost no one else. The Rangers hit 56 home runs as a team—they hit that many against the Twins on Monday night alone—and batted .217/.290/.290 in a league that hit .239/.306/.343. This works out to a TAv of .229. It is the only club in our database under .230. The current Mariners, at .244, hardly rate.

Indeed, for fans of negative performances, the Mariners are disappointing. Even restricting the list of possibilities to 2000 and up doesn’t place them in the top 10 of misery:


TEAM

YEAR

AVG

OBP

SLG

TAv

1.

ARI

2004

.253

.310

.393

.232

2.

LAN

2003

.243

.303

.368

.238

3.

DET

2003

.240

.300

.375

.239

4.

HOU

2010

.247

.303

.362

.239

5.

MON

2001

.253

.319

.396

.240

6.

PIT

2010

.242

.304

.373

.241

7.

SDN

2011

.233

.303

.333

.241

8.

DET

2002

.248

.300

.379

.242

9.

NYN

2003

.247

.314

.374

.242

10.

PIT

2009

.252

.318

.387

.242

11.

MIL

2004

.248

.321

.387

.243

12.

MON

2004

.249

.313

.392

.243

13.

SFN

2007

.254

.322

.387

.243

14.

SFN

2009

.257

.309

.389

.244

15.

SEA

2010

.236

.298

.339

.244

16.

SEA

2011

.226

.289

.334

.244

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this table is not the historic ineptitude of Mariners hitting—it’s just run-of-the-mill bad—but that despite a winter’s activity and more than half a season to make adjustments, this year’s offense is almost exactly as poor as last year’s. With the exceptions of the acquisition of Ryan, and the promotions of Ackley and, latterly, Mike Carp, the lineup was handled with a King Midas-in-reverse touch by general manager Jack Zduriencik.

Clearly, no one could have anticipated some of the problems, like Ichiro, a career .301 hitter on ground balls, seemingly losing a step and dropping to .239—having averaged about 54 infield hits a season coming into the year, he has only 26 this year. Nor could anyone have foreseen the health problems that had deprived Franklin Gutierrez of any semblance of hitting ability.

Yet, Gutierrez hadn’t hit in 2010 either. Mariners catchers hit an amazing .201/.263/.303 in 2010, but Miguel Olivo’s .220/.257/.390 is hardly a decisive upgrade. Jack Wilson is a veteran non-hitter. Michael Saunders had spent two years disappointing in the majors, and Milton Bradley’s bat had been on life support as early as 2009, and Jack Cust’s home run swing had mysteriously vanished in 2010, when he lost nearly half of his home runs from the year before. And then there is Chone Figgins, of whom the Mariners’ signing and subsequent handling it would be impolite to discuss.

There is hope for the Mariners. Their pitching propelled them into contention in the weak AL West before this current slump killed their hopes. They have something to build on, assuming they don’t foolishly part with too many assets at the trading deadline. The 1989 Orioles won 87 games. The 1961 Phillies were terrible, but they were building something. The 2009 Giants, tied with the Mariners on the list above, were the 2010 world champions. Despite the current malaise, there is something there. Whether they have the right GM in place to exploit that hope is another matter entirely.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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