Mariners’ Jerry Dipoto reflects on first half of bad breaks, sloppy play
The first two months of this season showed what the Mariners could be.
Even with an injury-depleted, mix-and-match bullpen, the team was able to play the style of baseball it was designed to play. We often saw the “conga line” offense that general manager Jerry Dipoto envisioned and manager Scott Servais and staff coached up in spring training, with good at-bats passed down the lineup from one player to the next. The bullpen somehow came together and put up stellar numbers. The starters, while not quite living up to the billing, held their own for the first two months, sitting in the top half of the rankings in most categories.
The Mariners spent 26 days in first place over the first two months. On May 31, at 30-21, they were a half game out. That afternoon, as the team boarded buses for a dress-up flight, wearing costumes that told something about where they came from, there was a notable absence. Felix Hernandez did not travel to San Diego with the team. Shortly later we would learn he had suffered a calf injury earlier in the day, and no timetable was set for his return. Two days later, at 31-22, the Mariners spent their last day in first place. Since then, they have gone 14-22 and fallen to third place, 8.5 games out of first.
A game over .500 at the All-Star break is something that perhaps a number of people would have felt good about at the beginning of the season. The Mariners, however, are off the 86-87-win pace that Dipoto set as a target when he put this team together. A number of factors – injury, travel, admitted overuse of some players – have contributed to the slide we have seen since May. Poor base-running and inconsistent defense have also done damage. In baseball, it’s not as easy as telling a player to play better or replacing players at will. Fans will often talk about accountability, but what exactly does that look like?
“The consequence of playing like we have played is you wind up going into the break around .500,” Dipoto said matter-of-factly over the weekend.
“When we built this team, we didn’t build it thinking we were the runaway favorite to win the World Series. We built this team with the idea that we were going to be in the 86-87-win range, and if things broke right for us we could win 92-93 and wind up in the playoff picture, and if things broke poorly for us we would be closer to a .500 team. We have had more things break negatively for us.”
Eleven players who were expected to contribute this year have spent time on the disabled list in the first half. Six pitchers are still on it. The hits to the starting rotation were the most costly with the staff averaging one fewer inning per start after Hernandez went down. Dipoto has seen an impact throughout the club.
“There was a lot of stress being put on our club every day, and it all goes back to the starting pitching when the starting pitching was averaging roughly five innings per start for most of the last month and a half,” he said. “There is a lot that has to happen right in the bullpen. The defenders, I think, are trying to do things, make the throw they shouldn’t make. There is a little bit of tension added to every play they make and the guys on the bases – I know they want to make the right play – they are trying to push for something they are just not capable of doing or they get hesitant because they know they are not capable of it and there is … a mentality to it that they just can’t control, and it all comes down to if the starter throws six innings, a lot of that seems to go away.”
This is not a free pass for the defense and base-running, however.
“We’ve spent too many days losing games because of things we are doing on the bases,” Dipoto said. “We are losing outs. Similarly, we are doing it on the other side; we are allowing free bases, we are allowing runners to advance and we are allowing the opponents’ base-runners to beat us in games, and that’s a defensive issue. Some of the defensive shortcomings the last four, five weeks I can attribute to the general fatigue, playing with a 12-man instead of 13-man position-player group. That starts to stress players.
“In the middle of the first half we could point to the absence of Leonys Martin and Ketel Marte, but it’s gone beyond that now. We need to focus on playing good fundamental baseball because that’s the defense, that’s the base-running. It’s the simple fundamentals of the game that we are just allowing to slip away from us, and that’s focus, that’s day-to-day focus and I do think that it is a lot easier to focus when you are confident and well-rested, and right now guys just aren’t.”
Interestingly enough, Dipoto sees some of the surprise home-run numbers as a byproduct of some of the hitters not being well-rested. The home runs are welcome as long as they are not getting the hitters out of their regular approach of grinding out an at-bat, doing the right thing and passing off to a teammate if it’s not there for them.
“Generally speaking, when you get tired, you start to get bigger,” Dipoto said. “You get a little bit bigger with your movements because the small muscles don’t want to fire as quickly as they did the day before when you are not getting a chance to reset. I think you are seeing that with a number of guys, and they need a break. It’s part of why baseball has the mid-summer break.
“The last month and a half for us has been a grueling schedule, competition, clunky trips, playing a little bit under-manned, and we are playing with the same group of guys and just drilling them every day.”
In general, Dipoto has been very happy with the Mariners’ offense, which has scored the sixth-most runs in the American League.
“We are seeing an MVP run out of Robinson Cano, normal power production from Nelson Cruz, an All-Star first half from Kyle Seager,” he said, “but for everything we have done well, we have done something to offset that and it could be the defense, it could be the base-running, it could be the lack of innings from the starters the last five weeks.
“What made us go the first eight weeks is the starters gave us the chance to win games. We just need a way to find consistency. Every team is going to battle injuries. Every team is going to battle difficult schedule pockets that are tougher than others. Those are no excuse. We have to find a way to make the best out of the group we have, and I think it is a very capable group.”
The question now is whether or not that group will change as the trading deadline approaches. We will look into that a little bit closer on Thursday.