Salk: Biggest reason for Mariners’ hitting woes? Look to top of lineup

May 4, 2023, 9:49 PM

Seattle Mariners...

Julio Rodriguez of the Seattle Mariners bats against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 28, 2023. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

(Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Last week, a woman in England saw the face of Princess Diana in a piece of ham. While describing herself as “shocked,” she believed the face-in-the-ham to be “beautiful.”

Of course.

Take a look at the picture. Do you see it?

The answer might depend on whether you want to or not. It might depend on your preconceived ideas of whether or not the deceased can appear in packaged deli meat. It might depend on your bias.

We all have our biases. For instance, I am biased against people who call me “bias” and leave off the “ed” at the end. And I think our preconceived views on this Seattle Mariners’ roster are affecting our view of how the early part of this season has played out. And yes, I am including myself in that statement.

Dipoto talks Mariners’ ‘deep slumps’ at the plate, K numbers, more

The Mariners are 15-16, fourth in the AL West, four games behind first-place Texas and one behind Houston. They are dead last in the league in batting average, but 20th in runs scored (amazingly, just three runs separate them from the 14th-best team, which would put them in the top-half of the league).

We can all watch the games, look at the numbers and determine their offense hasn’t been up to snuff. But where we likely differ is the primary reason why.

If you came into the season believing that the lineup was largely incomplete and the team needed to spend more freely in free agency, you are probably disgusted by the lack of production from the DH and second base positions. You saw available offensive players that could have helped this team passed over in favor of stopgap solutions that haven’t paid off so far. You’re not wrong. Kolten Wong has been a disappointment and the DH spot has been a disaster.

But that isn’t the whole story.

Because if you came into the season like me, believing that the roster might be a bat short but that they had largely made positive moves in the offseason, you are focused much more on the top of the lineup than the bottom.

Julio Rodríguez, Ty France, Eugenio Suarez and Teoscar Hernández are all WAY below any reasonable expectation. Together, those four players are a combined .498 points off their career OPS averages. That is nearly impossible to imagine nor plan for. I see a lineup that wouldn’t be successful even if they had signed Aaron Judge or Trea Turner because its nucleus just isn’t hitting right now.

We’re both right, at least to some extent. They are a bat short. They could have added more. And the guys that made them contend last year aren’t playing up to that level.

Here’s the good news: the four players that have scuffled so far are unlikely to do so for the entire season. The law of averages says they will probably go through enough hot stretches to balance off their cold start. And when they do, they should be a nice compliment to a pitching staff that has been great and absolutely can continue to be so.

They can also add that bat we all want. Maybe not in May, but perhaps in June (when Carlos Santana was acquired last season).

The way we view the team also affects how we react to their offseason decision-making and why new acquisitions tend to struggle to hit for this team. Some say they are too cheap to spend on better players. Some say their offensive analytics team is broken. Others just think they are cursed.

There might be some truth to all of those ideas. Certainly, shelling out more money can attract players. And teams are constantly evaluating their approach to player analysis and acquisition. But I believe there is more to this story.

The Mariners have some real world challenges when it comes to free agency. Their ballpark has a (fair) reputation for being the hardest in baseball in which to hit.

Related: Why aren’t the Seattle Mariners landing big bats? Ballpark may be the answer

Free agents know that and it affects their willingness to sign here. It is an excuse but the dimensions and weather at this park consistently have it ranked last in the league in terms of “park factor” and any free agent with a market for his services knows that.

How do you solve that? Simple. You just offer more money. You just pay more than the competition in order to lure hitters here. You offset the risk they are taking with higher compensation. Right?

Well, certainly that is a strategy. It brought Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre and Robinson Cano here (though with mixed results). But what if the problem isn’t just that the Mariners have been shopping at the bargain basement? What if those park factors are real and affect some players more than others?

That means you better be really sure whoever you sign can hit here or else you are going to be stuck with a terrible contract that no one really wants because you (by your own admission) overpaid and then the player torched their own value!

The Mariners have instead tried to sample the goods before they buy. To see who can succeed here so as to avoid that longterm problem.

Let’s take Teoscar Hernández for example. If he had been a free agent this last season, he would have had a robust market. Brandon Nimmo (a year younger and a better defender) signed for some $160 million over eight years. Even if Teo hadn’t quite reached that deal, could he have gotten $130 million over seven? Given the market for outfielders (and our implicit need for the Mariners to overpay), I think that’s a fair number.

In the offseason, signing Teoscar for $130 million would have shown the “commitment to winning” some are craving. But would that have been better than getting to sample his services for this year and find out if he has the ability to handle this park/weather/curse/franchise? Would you be happier now with him struggling, or would you be even more upset because not only would he be hurting the team but there would be less flexibility to deal with his struggles?

I think the Seattle Mariners have a well constructed team. It isn’t perfect. They still need a bat. They still need some veteran leadership. Maybe AJ Pollock will end up filling one or both of those roles. Maybe they’ll find someone in the trade market like they did last year. Maybe someone (Jose Caballero? Taylor Trammel?) unexpectedly becomes a key contributor.

But in my view, none of it matters unless the core of this lineup turns it around. As for whether they will, I’ll take that bet.

We can all agree that this Mariners offense isn’t where it needs to be. How they got there and how likely they are to turn it around, well, that’s where we better call in the slice of ham!

More Seattle Mariners coverage:

• Mariners’ Dipoto gives injury updates, timelines for Muñoz and Ray
• Stecker: Is cold weather a factor in Mariners’ recent slow starts?
• Gustafson: Bryce Miller throws most dominant SP debut in Mariners history
• Fann: Bryce Miller debut allows Mariners a temporary sigh of relief
• Bob’s Seattle Mariners Breakdown: Making sense of tough 1st month

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