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The real reason for the Mariners’ struggles

Aaron Harang and the back end of Seattle’s rotation have gone a combined 6-15 with a 6.54 ERA this season. (AP)

By Gary Hill

The Mariners took two of three in New York to start their most recent road trip, only to drop the final six games. At one point on the trip they climbed into second place and within a game of .500. They now sit seven games back of the even mark and four and half behind Oakland for second place.

Despite some popular opinion, the primary culprit for the Mariners’ recent woes is not the offense. They’ve swatted 53 homers this season, which is eighth in baseball. They’ve drawn 153 bases on balls, which is seventh. Their offense is 21st in MLB with a .699 OPS.

A team OPS of .699 does not put them in the class with the 1927 Yankees, but it is good enough to win with. Here is a list of teams huddled with the M’s in OPS rankings:

21. Mariners, .699.
21. Padres, .699. San Diego is 16-9 in its last 25 and pulled to within four games in the NL West.
20. Pirates, .701. Their record (28-18) is tied for third in the National League.
19. Royals, .704. Kansas City is just a game back of .500 (21-22).
18. Cubs, .712. Chicago is 18-27.
17. Cardinals, .716. St. Louis has the best record in baseball (29-16).
16. Diamondbacks, .718. Arizona is tied for the NL West lead (26-21).
15. Blue Jays, .718. Toronto is 19-27.
14. A’s, .721. Oakland is 25-23.
13. Yankees, .725. New York is first in the AL East (28-18).

There is one thing that separates the Cardinals, Yankees, Pirates and Diamondbacks from the Cubs and Blue Jays on the previous list: Pitching.

The Mariners have scored 74 runs and are 8-10 in the month of May. The Pirates have scored 72 runs and they are 13-6. The Mariners’ ERA in May is 4.45 while the Pirates boast a 2.41 mark.

Starting pitching, in particular, has been the chief issue for the Mariners. The rotation owns a 4.47 ERA for the season, which is 21st in baseball. It is a surprising mark considering they have arguably the best one-two punch in the game right now.

Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma have combined to go 10-4 with a 2.21 ERA. They have fanned 133 hitters while only walking 23. They have only allowed 103 hits this year in 20 starts.

Meanwhile, the rest of the rotation has combined to go 6-15 with a 6.64 ERA. In seven more starts than the dynamic duo, the rest of the rotation has only thrown 5 1/3 more innings. They have yielded a whopping 77 more hits and 13 more homers. They have walked 43 and only fanned 89. Felix and Iwakuma are throwing almost seven innings a start. The rest of the rotation is averaging just over five frames a turn.

Joe Saunders: 3-4 record, 5.64 ERA
Brandon Maurer: 2-6, 6.80
Aaron Harang: 1-5, 8.58
Blake Beavan: 0-1, 8.27

The number 4 is the most important number for the Mariners right now. They are:

12-3 when scoring four or more;
8-24 when scoring three or fewer;
1-24 when allowing four or more;
19-3 when allowing three or fewer.

In three turns out of five, the Mariners are not even consistently getting the opportunity to hit the magic four mark. During this six-game slide, the rotation owns a 9.62 ERA. To make matters worse, the rotation has struggled right out of the gates in games. They have yielded 33 runs this year in first innings, which fifth-worst in baseball.

The tone is being set early when Felix and Iwakuma are not on the hill. The bullpen is also being overworked, which can have severe effects for multiple days. Here is the inning breakdown for the month of May:

Felix and Iwakuma: 54 innings
Bullpen: 50 1/3 innings
Rest of the rotation: 49 innings

The Mariners must have more consistent pitching from the final three in the rotation. They were dealt a blow to start the season when Erasmo Ramirez (1-3 record, 3.36 ERA) was not ready to go. They hit another bump when Danny Hultzen ran into injury woes just as it appeared he was hitting his groove at Triple-A Tacoma. Maurer is a rookie, so riding the roller coaster is not surprising. Saunders has been sensational at home, but struggled on the road. He needs to straighten out his road issues. Harang has struggled with injury and ineffectiveness. The other in-house options:

Jeremy Bonderman: 2-3 record, 3.79 ERA in Tacoma. He is scheduled to pitch Thursday.

Blake Beavan: Struggled with the M’s this year, but pitched well his last time out for Tacoma (one earned run over 7 2/3 innings).

Hector Noesi: Pitched well in a spot start for Seattle in New York, but was hammered his last time out for the Rainiers (six earned runs over five innings).

Whoever ends up in the rotation, it is essential that the Mariners find consistency at the back end. Consistency from the rotation will be key to make another run at Oakland and the .500 mark in the short-term.