March 12, 2013
Rime of the '83 Mariners
There are many reasons to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the 1983 Seattle Mariners:
This was a stunning offensive team, or should I say, stunningly offensive. At the time, its 558 runs scored were the lowest in club history in a non-strike-shortened season. The 2010 and 2011 Mariners have since eclipsed the mark.
That the 2010 team, the benchmark by which all weak Seattle offenses are measured, destroyed 1983 in terms of ineptitude should take nothing away from the latter's achievement:
The most beautiful symmetry came at the catcher position:
This signifies nothing; I just love gazing at it. (We also must acknowledge that Sweet broke his right hand during spring training, which may have affected his hitting.) Slap Dan Wilson's first season with the Mariners between the two and it gets even better:
Such fun... must stay on topic. The year was 1983 and the Mariners, as was their custom at the time (they entered the season with a .399 winning percentage and managed to lower it), did not play well. They did not have Felix Hernández to lead them to that elusive 61st win, relying instead on rookie sensation Matt Young, their second-round pick in 1980 out of UCLA.
We'll return to Young in a moment, but first, let's take a closer look at the offense. The interesting thing is that Sweet might not have been the worst, uh, offender. There were several worthy candidates for Worst of the Worst:
Owens and Cruz were both shortstops. Mercado was another catcher. The Mariners got nothing out of those two positions. Their catchers hit .204/.260/.275, while their shortstops hit .207/.257/.297.
Richie Zisk wasn't horrible, although it was bad enough by his standards that he retired after the season, at age 34. Zisk was a lesser version of Greg Luzinski. People forget about players like them three decades later, which is a shame because they combined for 3,272 hits and 514 homers. Plus, you can't spell Luzinski without Zisk.
Meanwhile, Owen's rookie campaign failed to impress Bill James. From his 1984 Baseball Abstract:
Why don't we call this guy “Julio” and rename the other guy “Spike Franco?” It seems like a shame to waste such a good baseball nickname on somebody who is going to be out of the league in two years.
Although Owen never hit much (career .247 TAv), he managed to stick around for 13 years and play in more than 1,500 games. So there.
As for Cruz, James ranked him 26th out of 26 big-league third basemen (he played shortstop for Seattle but was released midseason and picked up by the Orioles, who stuck him and his anemic bat at third). No. 25 was Jamie Allen, who started at the hot corner for—you guessed it, the 1983 Mariners. But we've already discussed Allen.
Cowens? He had a season as wacky in the opposite direction as his MVP-worthy 1977 with the Royals:
James' comment in the 1984 Baseball Abstract is succinct: “Had a worse year than a biker in a Clint Eastwood movie.” Twelve words. Except for starting pitchers, which James handled differently, only Rich Dauer (10), Mike Fischlin (5), Paul Householder (9), Zisk (1), and Dave Beard (3) got shorter writeups. All lacked the snappiness of the Cowens comment (e.g., Zisk's read simply, “Retired.”).
Castillo had been Seattle's everyday third baseman in 1982 and hit like Royce Clayton in a down year. That was the high point of Castillo's career. He started 39 games for the Mariners in 1983, four more at second base, and three (!) at first base. In his 1983 Baseball Abstract, James ranked Castillo 26th of 26 third basemen. Seattle was cornering a market on something that didn't deserve to be cornered so much as ridiculed, but there you go.
Mercado was a 21-year-old rookie coming off a .280/.323/.502 showing in the PCL. He spent parts of eight seasons in the big leagues but never approached the 197 plate appearances he got in 1983. In a parallel universe, maybe he is a beloved radio announcer who stars in Señor Belvedere:
Moses spent parts of 11 seasons in the big leagues and once led the American League in caught stealing (18 in 1986). His list of comparables at Baseball-Reference includes James Mouton, Chuck Carr, Hosken Powell, Herm Winningham, and Miguel Dilone.
Moses was Carr without the defense or base-stealing prowess:
Moses didn't hack much on 2-0, going 6-for-22 with two doubles in his career. (Carr went 14-for-36 with four doubles, so he may have had a point.)
Four promising youngsters also saw action. Darnell Coles, Phil Bradley (also a highly regarded college quarterback who was recruited by the upstart USFL right around this time), and Harold Reynolds all went on to notch more than 3,000 plate appearances in the big leagues. The fourth was Al Chambers, who until Brien Taylor and Matt Bush came along, was the poster child for what can go wrong with a No. 1 draft pick. Chambers, who hit .209/.376/.299 in 31 games at age 22, would play just 26 more and be done by age 24.
* * *
I said we would return to Matt Young in a moment, but that was more than a moment. The offense got me all hot and bothered, sorry about that.
There are three young lefthanders in the majors that I really like–Matt Young, Dave LaPoint and Mark Davis. Young throws a fastball that looks like it tails away from a righthanded batter, and he keeps it down and away–down and in to a lefthander–and there's not much you can do with a pitch like that. I also like his delivery; he just looks like a pitcher who could pitch that way for about ten, fifteen years.
In the most literal sense, James was right. Young did pitch for 10 years. A few of them were decent, but mostly he was a fringe guy who retired with a 4.40 ERA and 10 WARP for his career.
Just for grins, how did James' three southpaws fare? I kind of love this:
Meanwhile, the 1983 Mariners pitching staff wasn't terrible. Jim Beattie, Bob Stoddard, Mike Moore, Gaylord Perry (now 44 years old and entering the season third all-time behind leader Walter Johnson and challenger Nolan Ryan in strikeouts), Glenn Abbott, and Bryan Clark shared the four rotation spots behind Young. Seattle starters combined for a 4.35 ERA, eighth among 14 AL teams and slightly worse than the league average of 4.16.
The relief corps tied for fifth with a 3.85 ERA (league average was 3.86) and led the circuit with 338 strikeouts, 51 more than second-place Baltimore. Right-handers Roy Thomas and Mike Stanton (yes, right-hander; you're thinking of the other Mike Stanton... well, one of the others), and southpaw Ed Vande Berg led the way, while closer Bill Caudill and his 26 saves despite a 4.71 ERA may have been the weakest of the lot.
On the other hand, Caudill occasionally did interesting things with his facial hair. How this figures into his WARP, I don't know.
Caudill's problem in 1983 was a large home/road split. He pitched reasonably well at the Kingdome but had a 6.12 ERA and a .310/.393/.535 slash line against away from it. So in November, the Mariners sent him away for good, receiving Dave “Now with Seattle” Beard (of course he would be traded for a guy named “Beard”) and Bob Kearney, one of three catchers rated lower in the 1984 Baseball Abstract than incumbent Sweet.
* * *
We mentioned symmetry earlier. Here is some more: The 1983 Mariners went 30-51 at home, on the road, before the All-Star break, and after.
They had a losing record in every month, winning between 8 and 12 games in all but October, when they went 0-2.
There were bright moments. Beattie spun the first one-hitter in franchise history, against the Royals on September 27. Only a third-inning single to left by U.L. Washington kept Beattie from perfection. Young tossed a two-hitter and combined on two others, going 2-1 in those games. Stoddard and Moore added two-hitters of their own.
On the flip side were games like one on June 26 against Toronto. The fellow expansionist Blue Jays scored 19 runs on 21 hits and 9 walks. Stoddard gave up five runs, Thomas gave up four, Stanton three. Third baseman Castillo, in the first and only pitching appearance of his career, recorded the most outs of any Mariners hurler that day. He allowed seven runs on three homers in the process.
Caudill finally came on to get the final four outs. It wasn't exactly a save, but it wasn't exactly the opposite, either. Considering that the Mariners had just fired manager Rene Lachemann and released the veteran Perry, surviving was good enough. New skipper Del Crandall saw, among many other things, Mickey Klutts hit the final two of his 14 career home runs on that Sunday afternoon. Both came at the expense of Castillo.
The offense had its moments. The Mariners' biggest outburst came on August 2, at home against Oakland. They used six homers (after hitting five over the previous 10 games) to power their way past the A's, 15-12. Seattle trailed, 12-10, after four innings and then got serious. Thomas and Vande Berg blanked the A's, while Hendersons hit four bombs for the home team, with Owen and Domingo Ramos accounting for the others.
* * *
The Mariners had a terrible draft in 1983, their first pick in June being the late Darrel Akerfelds, one of the few selections to have a career. Fourth-rounder Bill Wilkinson was the best of the pitchers, and he worked a mere 113 1/3 big-league innings. On the offensive side, Mickey Brantley played 302 games and fathered a son, Michael Brantley, who now plays for the Indians.
There was also a January draft in those days, and Seattle made six picks there. None of them ever reached the bigs. On a positive note, that same month saw the curious free-agent compensation system in effect at the time net the Mariners a young second baseman from the Reds organization because Floyd Bannister signed with the White Sox.
It makes no sense that Cincinnati should lose Danny Tartabull thanks to a transaction that didn't even involve them, but such were the rules of the day. The Mariners later undermined their own efforts, trading Tartabull to the Royals for right-hander Scott Bankhead after the 1986 season. Bankhead gave Seattle a few decent years before shoulder miseries shortened his career.
Tartabull, meanwhile, knocked 262 home runs, mostly as a right fielder for the Royals and Yankees. Of course, the Mariners shipped another member of their 1983 squad, Ken Phelps (who had been acquired in March of that year from Montreal for “future considerations”), to the Yankees for a guy who made the loss of Tartabull a little easier to take. Jay Buhner hit 310 homers of his own. Because I enjoy these comparisons and we are having fun, here are Tartabull and Buhner's career lines:
Both Tartabull and Buhner lived happily ever after. And if you're wondering what this all means 30 years later, there are two points to remember. First, the mind wanders during spring training. Second, this year's Mariners won't be as bad as the 1983 version.
Unless, of course, I am wrong. In that case, the opposite is true.