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Drayer: Making sense of Mariners’ struggles to start the 2021 season

Mariners LHP Marco Gonzales has had back-to-back rough outings to start 2021. (Getty)

While the Mariners have endured some painful losses in their first week plus of play, seven games into a 162-game season is far too soon to be looking for, let alone pushing, the panic button.

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With that said, it’s understandable if there is a feeling of “here we go again” after the Mariners 3-4 start. In reality, there should be that feeling because if you take a closer look, by design in large part, shouldn’t that be what is expected at this point?

You don’t follow? Look no further than the offense, which had a six-month season of “get the kids experience at the big league level” shrunk to two last year.

While there were encouraging signs, I’m not sure how much improvement could be expected over the offseason. They literally are getting going again and are doing so while missing one of their top bats in Kyle Lewis with the only additions being two players coming off missed seasons. The Mariners field largely the same offense and “here we go again,” should be a starting point with the team’s 86 wRC+ (100 is league average) not far off from the 91 wRC+ they finished with last season.

What about the strikeouts, you might ask.

The Mariners are currently tied for the fifth-worst strikeout rate in baseball. While that 29% is an ugly number, when you look at Kyle Seager, Ty France and Dylan Moore running K percentages over 10 points higher than their numbers last year, it’s tough not to think they are at least partially reflective of the pitching they have seen early.

Is it worth worrying about in the first week? Probably not. But for the offensive rebuild to be deemed a success, at some point this year they have to take steps forward. It simply can’t be a tip your cap night every time you see an elite arm.

On the pitching side, the story is a little different as expectations were different after additions were made in both the rotation and bullpen.

With the bar set ridiculously low last year for the bullpen, seemingly any change would be good. As it turns out, we have seen change.

Where last year the numbers from the pen ranged largely from 25th to dead last in MLB, early on they have been more 15th to 20th with their strikeout percentage jumping from 8.29 per 9 innings in 2020 to 10.27 this year. A decent start with plenty of room for improvement is without question a step ahead of where they were at the end of last season. Clearly not “here we go again.”

The picture not quite as rosy for the starters unfortunately. The loss of James Paxton cannot be understated. He was added to be an anchor for the rotation, a pitcher who at his best could flash ace-like stuff. Perhaps the thought was that pitching with an extra day of rest would help keep him on the field and while some have suggested he most likely would have been traded at the deadline, I tend to think that had he stayed healthy there would have been more talk of an extension instead. As it is, the Mariners must now replace what arguably had the potential to be their best arm with their number seven starter.

Without Paxton, the Mariners are left with a rotation that fared decently in the short season last year, finishing ninth in staff WAR and 14th in FIP. What we saw from them the first turn, however, was anything but picking up from where they left off in 2020.

“Frankly with our starting pitching in general with the exception of what I thought was an outstanding start by Yusei (Kikuchi) and a really solid outing by Chris Flexen, our starting pitching, which we think is pretty good, needs to be better than it was these (first) six games,” said Jerry Dipoto Thursday on 710 ESPN Seattle.

Marco Gonzales’ start against the Twins later that day was not a step in the right direction. While Dipoto delivered his words matter-of-factly, it’s hard to imagine there’s not at least some frustration for what has transpired early with the rotation. This is a group that was invested in and a group that showed promise in 2020. It was a group the Mariners perhaps thought they could lean on a bit as the offense continued to grow. Instead, the rotation for the large part has stumbled out of the gates.

This is the part where we again point out that it is early and that perhaps any reaction after seven games is overreaction. It hasn’t all been negative. The defense and baserunning have been for the most part good. It’s not hard to imagine how long this lineup could be with the addition of Jarred Kelenic in the not-too-distant future and return of Lewis. Paxton is a terrible loss, but Logan Gilbert is just around the corner.

If you prefer your glass half full, a rough first week could turn quickly for the Mariners, turning the “here we go again,” once and for all into “here we go.”

Follow Mariners insider Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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