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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
Opening Day through July 31, 2002: 66-42, .611
August 1 through end of season, 2002: 27-27, .500
2003: 42-19, .682

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.

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