By Gary Hill
The Mariners have been riding the roller coaster this season.
In wins, their pitching has boasted a 1.12 ERA, which is the very best in all of baseball. In losses, they maintain a lofty 9.92 ERA, which is tied for second-worst in the game. In the over 128 innings thrown during wins, they have yielded just six home runs. In the 114 innings pitched in losses, they have coughed up a whopping 33 homers.
In terms of effectiveness, the rotation can easily been divided. Felix Hernandez (2.51) and Hisashi Iwakuma (2.35) are among the top-six in ERA in the American League. The Mariners are 13-9 as a team when those two pitch. They’re 9-21 when the rest of the rotation takes the ball. Brandon Maurer (6.93), Aaron Harang (6.51) and Joe Saunders (6.09) are all among the top-10 of highest ERAs in the American League. Felix and Iwakuma combine for a 2.43 mark. The rest of the rotation sits at a combined 6.45 ERA.
The M’s have the fifth-worst first-inning ERA (5.54) and the fifth-worst second-inning ERA (5.58) compared to the third-best mark in innings seven through nine (2.68).
The month of May has seen an increase in offensive production for the Mariners. They are scoring 4.13 runs per game and their total runs (95) are 18th in baseball for the month. Their OPS (.715) is 15th-best. The 10-13 M’s have scored more runs than the Yankees (14-11), A’s (14-11), Pirates (17-8) and Nationals (14-11) in May.
Right-handed hitters are batting .341 off of Mariners starter Joe Saunders this season compared to .213 for lefties. (AP)
Averaging four runs a game is a key number for the Mariners. They are 22-3 when holding their opponents to three runs or fewer. They are 14-4 when scoring four runs or more. The key moving forward will be finding consistency in the rotation.
Brandon Maurer has struggled in his rookie season. He has shown flashes of the potential the Mariners saw in the spring, but he is being overwhelmed in May. Batters are hitting .378 against him with five homers and five doubles. He has also walked nine in just 19 2/3 innings. He may have forced the hand of the front office Tuesday after being battered by the Padres. The M’s could better afford to absorb his hills and valleys if the rest of the rotation was consistent, but having three inconsistent spots is too much to bare.
Joe Saunders was brought in to fill the void left by the Jason Vargas trade. He posted a 3.63 ERA over seven starts after a trade to Baltimore last season. He also hurled two dominant postseason starts, including a wild-card win over Texas.
The M’s are hoping for that Saunders to appear on the scene. His home/road splits have been well documented. However, the main concern for Saunders at the moment is how to get righties out. Saunders has routinely crushed lefties in his career while struggling against right-handed hitters. The splits this year have become even more pronounced. Righties are hitting .341 off of him with all nine of the homers he has yielded. The slash line is eye-popping: .341/.399/.595.
The good news for Saunders is that the matchup against the Padres is a good one. Most of their pop exists on the left side and they are only hitting .235 as a team against lefties. It is vital for the Mariners that Saunders locate some level of positive consistency.
Aaron Harang was picked up to fill the final spot in the rotation. Right now the Mariners need him to be consistent given the struggles of Maurer. He was superb as he hurled a complete-game shutout over the Padres in his last start. He has pitched fairly well with exception of games against teams in the AL West. He has yielded 20 earned runs in 11 1/3 innings in three starts against the Angels and Rangers. This could be an issue given that the M’s play baseball in the AL West.
At 35 years old, he is no longer the same guy who fanned an NL-high 216 hitters in 2006. His walk rate has crept up and his strikeout rate has inched down. His surface numbers have looked good the last two seasons (3.64 and 3.61 ERAs), but he has not been able to translate that to the American League. Interestingly, his two best starts this season have come against NL teams.
Help may be on the way soon. Erasmo Ramirez, who was slated to start the season in the rotation, pitched for the first time in organized baseball this year. Ramirez threw 71 pitches for Double-A Jackson Tuesday night. He went five innings and gave up just one earned run. He will still need some time to be ready for the big leagues.
The M’s could turn to Jeremy Bonderman if they wanted an immediate replacement for Maurer. There is no guarantee that the production will be any better. The results for Bonderman have been mixed in Tacoma. He has given up 77 hits in just 63 2/3 innings. He also pitched Tuesday night, going four innings and coughing up just one run. He was blasted the time before for eight runs in five innings.
Blake Beavan is an option as well, but he has not necessarily overwhelmed the Pacific Coast League in his five-game stint.
The Mariners play four teams below .500 in their next five series. They have a chance to put together a good stretch in terms of wins and losses if they can stabilize the final three rotation spots.