O’Neil: Mariners’ out-of-the-blue success is a rare surprise in today’s sports world
We know more about sports now.
We know more about sports when it comes to maximizing athletic performance. We know more about sports when it comes to measuring that performance. We know more about projecting performance, too.
That increased knowledge has a number of advantages from helping develop more skilled, athletic participants in sports to the ability to build better teams to helping fans understand the reason for their team’s success (or its lack thereof).
But the fact that we know more about sports also means that we get surprised less often, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. After all, the true out-of-the-blue surprise of the Mariners’ success so far this season has been not only enjoyable but downright inspiring. I know it’s made me think that perhaps I’m overly cynical, too often assuming that we’ll inevitably be disappointed.
No one expected this. In fact, the last Seattle team I remember experiencing this kind of scratch-your-head success no longer exists.
That would be the Seattle SuperSonics, and back in 2004 the team had gone two seasons without making the playoffs. Coach Nate McMillan was entering the final year of his contract. So was the star player, Ray Allen. And the general manager, Rick Sund. And Vladimir Radmanovic, Jerome James and Antonio Daniels in a season that most people expected would end in a fire sale.
Instead, the Sonics got off to what seemed like an impossibly hot start, wound up winning 52 games and beat the Sacramento Kings in five games in a first-round playoff series. I’ll forever remember the scene after that Game 5 victory in Seattle when the otherwise forgettable Jerome James donned a plastic garbage bag as a cape to celebrate the victory over the Kings, whom he said had given him a garbage bag to clean out his locker when releasing him earlier in his career.
I don’t want to get too far ahead of things here. The Mariners haven’t reached the halfway point of this season yet, and (thankfully) there’s not anyone on this Seattle team who resembles Jerome James. But it’s not too soon to say that this team has exceeded even the most optimistic appraisals of its chances this season.
How in the name of PECOTA could something like this happen in this acronymed era in which we literally can measure how many wins an individual player is responsible for compared to a replacement-level player?
Well, it turns out that being better at projecting success still leaves plenty of room for uncertainty. And projections don’t rule out a team finding valuable starting pitchers who make up for a lack of fastball velocity with athleticism and competitiveness, which is exactly what Mike Leake and Marco Gonzalez have done.
Or maybe the Mariners were just due for some good fortune, especially after last year when a historic wave of injuries disrupted their starting rotation.
There’s plenty of things that are hard to figure out about this Mariners season, starting with the fact that they’ve scored 22 more runs than they’ve allowed yet they’ve won eight more games than the Angels, who’ve outscored their opponents by 27 runs this year.
But there I go again, trying to predict things during a Mariners season that has been a three-month reminder of just how fun – and rare – a truly surprising team can be.