April 8, 2008
Mariner Meltdown on the Mound
The Seattle Mariners dropped their fourth game in a row Monday afternoon to fall to 2-5, completing their being swept at the hands of the Orioles-the Orioles-by losing their third bullpen game in the season's opening week. On Monday, Eric O'Flaherty was once again victimized by the O's, giving up a solo homer in the eighth to Aubrey Huff. Lefties hit .178 with one extra-base hit and more strikeouts (18) than hits (17) against O'Flaherty last year; they're 7-for-11 with three doubles and a homer off of him through five appearances this time around. That's a bad week.
Of the reasons I had the Mariners at 80-82 this season, falling closer to PECOTA's projection of 75-87 than the mainstream's "90 wins and a division title" call, was the expectation that the bullpen would be a problem in 2008. What I didn't foresee-and my AL Tout Wars can attest to this-is that the Ms would quickly lose their pen's anchor, closer J.J. Putz, to a rib injury. The loss of Putz, combined with the trade of George Sherrill to Baltimore in the Erik Bedard deal, now leaves the Mariners without their two best relievers from last year's pen, and in fact, the only two relievers from last year's team who could be expected to come close to matching their run prevention from '07 this year.
Here are the current Mariners relievers, along with their 2007 statistics.
Pitcher IP ERA K/9 K/BB* HR/9 G/F** HR/FB Sean Green 68.0 3.84 7.0 1.89 0.26 3.3 .05 Eric O'Flaherty 52.1 4.47 6.2 1.89 0.17 1.2 .02 Ryan Rowland-Smith 38.2 3.96 9.8 3.00 0.93 0.7 .07 Cha Seung Baek 73.1 5.15 6.0 3.77 0.74 0.8 .05 Brandon Morrow 63.1 4.12 9.4 1.47 0.43 0.8 .04 *less intentionals **from ESPN.com, as is the fly-ball data
To round out the unit, there's also Mark Lowe, part of the nominal closer crowd but not listed above; he threw just 12 2/3 innings last season at four levels as he rehabbed from elbow surgery. He's a hard thrower who had a strong debut in 2006, but is an unknown coming off of the injury. There's also Roy Corcoran, called up when Putz went down; he's a journeyman a month shy of his 29th birthday. In four separate stints, Corcoran has 21 MLB innings with a 5.14 ERA and a 14/12 K/BB. I threw Brandon Morrow in there because he spent all of last season in the big league bullpen, and could conceivably be back there as soon as this week.
The group combined had very little MLB experience prior to last season, so last year's stats are a fairly good proxy for expectations. What we have are a number of relievers whose ERAs don't match their underlying performances, a red flag when it comes to predicting the direction an ERA will take. In particular, take a look at the home-run and fly-ball data. Green is a legitimate ground-ball pitcher, but the rates of O'Flaherty, Baek, and Morrow are out of whack, even allowing for Mariners pitchers throwing half of their innings in always-friendly Safeco Field. Just to pick one control group, the five primary Mariners' starters last season allowed 97 homers on 996 fly balls, or just shy of 10 percent. As a result, the Mariners' bullpen's home-run rate has nowhere to go but up. The problems in the season's first seven games are a particularly nasty expression of that idea; Mariners relievers have allowed four homers in 15 2/3 innings, posting an 8.04 ERA.
John McLaren clearly had no plan for what to do after losing Putz, and has been muddling through in the five games since then. He used Miguel Batista on the starter's throw day to close the M's last win on Wednesday. Sunday, he tried to play matchups in the ninth and walked into O'Flaherty's nightmare, then watched Lowe lose the game. Monday, it was O'Flaherty in the eighth in a tied game that the lefty untied in a hurry. Lefties are unlikely to keep hitting .636 against the southpaw, so using him in a match-up role, and complementing O'Flaherty with Green from the right side, seems like a good idea. Elevating Lowe to a high-leverage role may be optimistic given his lack of experience and that he's still working back from surgery. As the folks at USS Mariner have noted, McLaren has barely used Rowland-Smith (one appearance), who may be the best candidate for one-inning non-matchup stints in the absence of Putz. Using Baek as the long man, Lowe in the seventh, O'Flaherty and Green for matchups, and Rowland-Smith to close is probably the best alignment of talent available to McLaren until Putz comes back in two to three weeks.
That's not the problem. The underlying issue that even after Putz returns, though, the primary problem will remain: the Mariners' bullpen isn't nearly as good as it looked last season, and it is unlikely to help the team to the record in one-run games (27-20) that helped prop up last season's overall 88-74 mark in 2007. That's why they looked like a .500 team to me two weeks ago, and nothing we've seen in the season's opening stretch has changed that perception.