Q: When are 93- and 90-win seasons not success?

A: When you’re the Seattle Mariners.

By the standards of most teams in the baseball, and by the standards of their own history, the Mariners’ last two years have been excellent ones. They’ve won 183 games, been in two pennant races, drawn three million people in both years, and made a good amount of money. The problem is that in neither season did the team make the playoffs, despite spending four months of each year in first place and having a pretty good lead over their rivals as late as August.

Let’s focus just on this year. Where did things go wrong? On August 6, the Mariners were 69-43, and had a three-game lead on the A’s in the AL West and over the Red Sox for the AL wild-card slot. From that day until today, the Mariners went 21-26, losing 10 games in the standings to the A’s and seven to the Sox, being eliminated from any potential playoff spot last night. The Mariners had actually been treading water since June, when they peaked at 48-22 on June 18 with a win over the Angels.

Breaking the team performance down by month:

            R/G   AVG   OBP   SLG   SB/CS   RA/G   IP/S  SP ERA  RP ERA
April      4.89  .259  .348  .403   18/4    3.85   6.19    3.83    2.99
May        6.11  .306  .366  .491   16/5    4.19   6.30    3.97    4.16
June       4.33  .264  .329  .391   20/7    3.04   7.02    2.85    3.96
July       5.00  .274  .356  .429   16/6    4.33   6.28    4.24    4.22
August     4.79  .271  .337  .373   17/4    4.45   5.78    5.05    2.48
September  3.73  .237  .314  .354   18/11   3.73   6.56    3.11    4.86

The Mariners have been all over the place offensively, largely dependent on how well they hit for average and power in any particular month. Their isolated OBP was generally around .060 to .080, which reflects their good team walk rate, and they were very consistent on the basepaths for most of the season. (I attribute the low success rate in September to increased stealing in high-risk, high-reward situations, such as sending Edgar Martinez in the 11th inning of Tuesday night’s game.)

As you can see, the Mariners haven’t hit for any power the last two months, and their brutal September at the plate–just 13 home runs and a .354 SLG–has been a big part of why they’ve gone 10-12 despite a bounceback from the pitching staff.

The criticism leveled at the Mariners’ management for not acquiring a hitter at the trade deadline seems to be warranted. Whether it’s Pat Gillick’s fault or the fault of an overly penurious, risk-averse ownership group, the fact is that this was an offense missing a cog. John Olerud‘s off-year (.268/.371/.385) turned a good lineup into a mediocre one, and combined with the lack of production at third base (Jeff Cirillo was again a disaster), in center field (where Mike Cameron had his worst year as a Mariner) and behind the plate (Mariners catchers: .235/.274/.350). The team’s big May at the plate may have distorted the perception of the offense, because the Mariners needed to fill one of their holes going into the stretch drive, and they didn’t. Their offensive performance down the stretch is in part attributable to not getting a third baseman, a catcher or a platoon partner for Olerud in the absence of Greg Colbrunn.

The overrating of Ichiro Suzuki has to be mentioned. I’ve written about this before, but Ichiro gets a lot of his positive publicity based on style points; he’s not a take-and-rake guy, but rather a line-drive hitter who puts a lot of balls in play and runs like the wind. That makes him a rarity in today’s game and appeals to many fans and media who value aesthetics over performance.

To be a viable contributor to the offense, Ichiro has to bat .330, because he doesn’t walk much and he doesn’t hit for a lot of power. When Ichiro was batting .350 in the first half, he was one of the better outfielders in the American League, although far from an MVP candidate. (And just where is that groundswell these days?) .352/.390/.476 with 13 net steals and good right-field defense should get you downballot votes if you do it all season long. Carlos Beltran has been a better player than Ichiro from the day Ichiro reached the majors, without getting half the attention.

Ichiro’s second half just killed the Mariners, and it’s because when he doesn’t hit for average, he doesn’t bring anything else to the table. The Ms have been leading off a .250 hitter who walks once a week since the All-Star break; that’s baseball suicide, and perhaps the biggest reason that the Mariners don’t have plans for next week.

Ichiro, of course, isn’t a .250 hitter or a .350 hitter. His career line of .327/.373/.439 is a reasonable accounting of his abilities, maybe a little high as it reflects his 27-29 theoretical peak. That makes him a good, not great, outfielder, and one who can be a contributor to a winning team as long as he’s not treated like the Second Coming.

Giving Ichiro bonus points for being a leadoff hitter has always been a mistake, because he’s not actually a leadoff hitter: he’s the world’s greatest #2 hitter being used at leadoff. Ichiro is a fast left-handed hitter who doesn’t walk, is nearly impossible to double up, and bats 30 points higher with a runner on base. When he reaches, he can steal 30 bases a year at an 80% clip. If the Mariners could make one change next season that would make them a more efficient offense, it would be to find an infielder who can run a .380 OBP in the #1 slot, allowing Ichiro to bat second in front of Bret Boone.

The problems at the plate are not the entire story, however. Bob Melvin has to take a lot of blame for overworking his starters in the first half, particularly in June. While Jamie Moyer and Freddy Garcia shouldered much of the burden, Melvin worked the heck out of three pitchers who probably could have used more care.

Gil Meche, coming back from basically three lost years to shoulder injuries, was the Ms best pitcher and an All-Star candidate through the end of June. He appeared to tire, though, despite which Melvin never once skipped him in the rotation to allow him to recover. In the first three months of the season, Meche had an ERA of 3.27, averaging 6.4 innings a start and 6.54 K/9. Since June, Meche has an ERA of 6.00 in 5.3 IP/start and 6.00 K/9. Meche allowed home runs at a rate 50% higher in the second half, and all the while, Melvin ran him out there every fifth day. No Julio Mateo or Rafael Soriano spot starts, despite the fact that both pitchers were more than capable of the role

Two other Mariners’ starters, Joel Pineiro and Ryan Franklin, were full-time starters for the first time in 2003. Pineiro averaged seven innings a start for three months, throwing more than 100 pitches 16 consecutive times, before falling apart in August: five starts, 26 innings, 8.31 ERA. Franklin blew past his previous career high in innings more than a month ago, and his dead-arm period in August showed up in a loss of command and a lot more runs on the scoreboard:

             IP   BB   SO   RA
April      32.0   10   14   17
May        38.0   11   16   12
June       35.2    8   21   14
July       34.0    5   13   18
August     35.1   16   13   23
September  31.0    8   17    5

Melvin’s most significant error this year was in not recognizing the limitations of his young pitchers. As effective as Meche, Pineiro and Franklin were in the first half, he needed to be more mindful of the workloads being placed upon them given their backgrounds. To Pineiro’s and Franklin’s credit, they recovered from their fatigue to pitch well in September, just not well enough to make up for the Amazing Disappearing Offense.

It wasn’t just management. While the inability of Gillick to add a bat or Melvin to manage the pitchers helped doom the Mariners, a number of players didn’t get the job done. Olerud’s .278 EqA is one of the worst of his career, and his .256/.359/.389 second half was a big part of the power shortage. Mark McLemore stopped being a useful bench player and started being an Triple-A baserunning coach. Mike Cameron’s second half–.211/.305/.340–should finally put an end to the idea that he’s an unknown superstar. Rey Sanchez, acquired in a minor trade after Carlos Guillen got hurt again, hit the emptiest .290 ever, with three doubles, a triple, seven walks and one stolen base.

The Mariners’ story could have had a better ending than it did, and the blame for that can be dispersed among many people. However, where they’re going to finish–second in the AL West, fourth in the American League–is an accurate accounting of both their talent level and their performance. That it marks their second straight season of a strong beginning and a weak ending doesn’t reveal any particular flaw in their makeup or character; the Ms aren’t chokers or quitters, and any attempt to label them as such says more about the accuser than the team itself.

There are good baseball reasons why they faltered in the second half, and those are the things the team will have to address in the offseason. How well Melvin and Gillick learn from this year’s mistakes will determine how well the team does in 2004.

Thank you for reading

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