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June 10, 2003
M's 2001, v2.0
To my mind, the biggest surprise of the 2003 season is the Seattle Mariners. After their late-season fade in 2002, I believed that their decline from 2001's 116 wins would continue. They did little to address their aging roster this winter, and their best prospects remain a year or two away.
Note to self: stop making predictions about the AL West.
Today, the Mariners are 42-19, eight games ahead of the A's. They haven't been lucky: Their .682 winning percentage is almost exactly what you would expect from a team with 344 runs scored and 232 runs allowed. The Mariners have the second-best offense in baseball (.285 EqA, tied with the Red Sox and just behind the Braves), the fourth-best bullpen and fifth-best rotation. They turn batted balls into outs better that any team in the game other than the A's, sporting a .739 Defensive Efficiency Rating.
If anything, this team is a good comp for the sainted 2001 squad. Through 61 games, that team was 48-13, but with a run differential that paralleled that of the current version:
Year Pct. RS RA Pyth. 2003 .682 344 232 .687 2001 .787 374 248 .695
In between, the Mariners went 93-69, finishing 10 games behind the A's in the West and six games out of the wild-card chase. Through the end of July, however, the M's were pretty much the same dominant baseball club they were in 2001 and have been so far in 2003:
2001: 116-46, .716
A team that has had a remarkably stable roster and won two out of every three games for nearly two-and-a-half seasons had a two-month stretch it which it played .500 ball, a stretch that cost it a playoff spot. How the heck did that happen?
It wasn't the offense. The Mariners scored 538 runs in 108 games through July 31 last year, an average of 4.98 r/g. Afterwards, they scored 276 runs in 54 games for an average of 5.1 r/g. The noted collapse of Ichiro Suzuki was more than balanced by the big second half of Bret Boone, keeping the lineup on an even keel.
The pitching was another story. The Mariners' staff had an ERA of 3.73 on the morning of August 1. That's comparable to their ERA in 2001 (3.54) and their ERA in 2003 (3.60). For the last two months of last season, though, the team had an ERA of 4.75. The starting rotation, especially Freddy Garcia, collapsed. James Baldwin finally lost his rotation job in August; John Halama was brutal, and replacement Ismael Valdes was alternately injured and ineffective through the end of the season. Jamie Moyer scuffled his way through September. While the bullpen was just about as effective as it had been, save a Kazuhiro Sasaki meltdown in September, the team's starting pitching was the key element in the M's falling off the pace in the division.
Well, that may not be entirely fair. Certainly, the ERAs of the Mariners' starters took a beating after August 1, but was it all their fault? We know that run prevention is a combination of pitching and defense; pitchers control walks, strikeouts and home runs, and the defense largely controls everything else. What changed in the dog days of August?
BB/9 K/9 HR/9 BABIP* April-July 2.6 6.5 1.0 .280 August-September 3.0 6.9 1.3 .307 *quick-and-dirty BABIP ((H-HR/AB-HR-SO))The pitching was less effective down the stretch, as you can see, but certainly not a whole run's worth. It was the defense that died. Batting average on balls in play is a serviceable proxy for Defensive Effiiciency, and as you can see, the Mariners' figure shot through the roof. The difference between the two figures is roughly equivalent to going from the top third of the league to the bottom third. The core strength that had enabled the team to muddle through with a non-strikeout rotation fell apart, and it showed up in the ERAs of the starting pitchers.
So what's the point? Well, the first point is that that despite the disapponting finish to last year's season, the 2003 Mariners can be viewed as a continuation of 2001's dominant squad. They share many of the same players and the same basic approach to the game. Moreover, they don't appear to be aging: Edgar Martinez, John Olerud, Boone, Moyer...the best players on the 2001 team were old, they're now two years older, and they're the best players on the 2003 team. If anything, it's the younger players, like Garcia and Carlos Guillen, who have been disappointments.
The team age is what makes me question whether this team can continue to win. The Mariners are heavily reliant on their defense to keep runs off the board, because their starting pitchers put a ton of balls in play. Perhaps the collapse of the defense we saw last summer was age-related. While replacing Mark McLemore and others in left field with Randy Winn should help that somewhat, the Mariners have enough aging legs that they need to be concerned about a repeat of those summertime blues.
Which brings us to the other problem the Mariners face: management. There may not be a more stark contrast come July 31 than that between Pat Gillick and Billy Beane. Gillick is nicknamed "Stand Pat" for his inactivity in the trade market, while year after year, Beane makes a key trade or three to improve his A's for the stretch drive. The A's have a deep pool of prospects from which to deal, which will make them dangerous in the market. The Mariners lack that depth and have a gaping hole at third base that needs repair; there's at least one very good third baseman--Mike Lowell--on the market. The Mariners certainly could use the upgrade on Jeff Cirillo, and Lowell fits the Mariners' scheme: a very good defensive player who brings an above-average bat to the park as well.
Gillick's ability to give his team a boost at the trade deadline--something he's never been able to do--may make the difference between repeating 2001 and repeating 2002.