How the AL West will be won: How Mariners stack up vs Rangers, Astros
Aug 31, 2023, 10:06 AM | Updated: 10:07 am
(Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Well, here we go. Get ready for the most chaotic, stressful, and exhilarating month (and a day) of baseball that anyone has ever experienced in the Pacific Northwest. After the Seattle Mariners’ record-setting 21-win August, the American League West represents the crowd of people outside a retail store minutes before it opens on Black Friday – a pulsating mass of energy waiting to spring forth into chaos.
Division races aren’t usually like this – in fact, with three teams within a game of each other entering September, we’re seeing something that has only occurred once in baseball since the Mariners existed as a franchise. We’re on the precipice of witnessing something truly historic.
With all three teams in AL West race off Thursday, we can close the book on August to thoroughly dissect and analyze the key advantages and potential pitfalls that await the Mariners, Astros, and Rangers over the final stretch of the regular season.
A lot of people need coffee for that morning jolt, but who needs that when you have the FanGraphs playoff odds? It has been a wildly fluctuating carnival ride of dizzying proportions, watching the odds for the Mariners to win the division catapult up over the course of August. In fact, this site might drive you crazy (but what’s true fanhood without a little craziness?) because just days ago the Mariners had the best odds to win the division – at slightly over 40% – but now the Astros sit atop this projection.
Undoubtedly, the schedules play a big part. Tankathon.com tracks every team’s strength of schedule, and Houston has the second easiest the rest of the way, while the Rangers are right at the halfway mark (15th toughest), and the Mariners encounter the toughest road of all – the eighth-hardest schedule remaining. Here are a few key takeaways on what lies ahead for these three contenders.
• A 10-game road trip against three very different teams and environments. The Mariners have won eight straight road series, so this could prove to be a big opportunity to solidify their spot at the top of the division.
• Angels/Dodgers homestand: Fresh off that 10-game road swing, the Mariners have to take a six-hour flight from Tampa on Sunday and turn around to play the Angels on Monday night. The Angels always seem to be pesky at the end of the year, and a team with nothing to lose and playing for pride can be a dangerous foe. Oh yeah, and after the Angels it’s only a Dodgers team that just put up a 24-4 record (with one game still to play) in August.
• The final 10 games: Self-explanatory, but it does take an added importance when we take a look at Houston.
• Second easiest remaining schedule in MLB: The Mariners reaped the benefits of an easy stretch, but now it unfolds nicely for the Astros. Houston opens up September with three against the Yankees, and they also get to see the Padres and A’s at home, along with a plumb six games against the Royals.
• Home cooking: In addition to those cupcakes, the Astros also get to hang out at home for most of this month with 15 of their next 21 games at Minute Maid Park. The only two road trips in that stretch are to the Rangers (won three of four last time there) and Royals.
• No pressure: The Astros’ final three games are against the Diamondbacks, while the Mariners have to go head-to-head against the Rangers four times (and seven total) in their final 10 contests. Houston also has played two more games than both Seattle and Texas, so there’s two more chances for its competition to slip up along the way.
• Early opportunity: A nine-game homestand to start September against the Twins, Astros and A’s will either build momentum or potentially bury Texas for good in the division race.
• Head-to-head edge: It is a vastly different Mariners team, and playing seven times in 10 days can undo a lot of what happened months ago, but the Rangers have dominated the Mariners this season. That 5-1 head-to-head record looms large, especially if the division comes down to a tiebreaker between the two teams.
We have picked through the schedule, but we’re only in the midst of this frenzied race because of various stumbles and hot stretches. So, how will it actually play out on the field? Here are a few reasons to be optimistic, and a few to be worried about for each team.
Why they will win
Everyone is hitting. Everyone.
Since July 1, when this epic turnaround began, the Mariners’ offense has the best fWAR (14.1) and highest wRC+ (130) in all of baseball. Their on-base percentage of .351 is second behind only the Dodgers, while their .467 slugging percentage is tied for fourth with the Red Sox and only behind the NL mashers in Atlanta, LA and Philly.
This isn’t just the Julio Rodríguez show, either. Teoscar Hernández just put together an August where he hit a career-best .365 to go with seven home runs, 22 RBIs and a 1.050 OPS. This is no outlier, either. The best slugging of his career comes in September and October.
J.P. Crawford is driving in runs at a torrid pace, setting a new high-water mark with 44 RBIs for the season, to go along with new career-highs in home runs (12) and walks (78) this season. He leads the AL and is third in MLB in walk rate (15.5%), and he has the third-highest on-base percentage in the AL (.385).
I could keep going, but this is an article, not a novel. Stuff-wise, nothing has changed with the Mariners rotation – they have been the standard bearer all season. Add in this offense and this Mariners team is one of the most complete in baseball.
They are healthy and playing their best baseball right now. Michael Brantley, a much-needed proven left-handed hitter, made his season debut on Tuesday and hit a two-run double on Wednesday to help the Astros sweep the Red Sox. They have won five straight and put up a franchise-record 78 hits during that stretch. Yordan Álvarez has flipped that terrifying switch again, hitting .462 with a 1.356 OPS in the last week.
Houston has also showcased what the top of its rotation can do. Justin Verlander’s last two starts: 11 innings, no runs, 16 strikeouts, three walks. Meanwhile, Framber Valdez went seven no-hit innings last Friday in his fourth start since throwing a full no-hitter.
This is the deepest and most talented team in the division – when healthy. That qualifier is key, and we’ll get into that in the next section, but this team didn’t lead the AL West for most of the season simply by chance. Corey Seager just hit 10 homers in August and Marcus Semien is right behind Julio for the most hits in the American League.
Despite some upheaval while on the Mets, Max Scherzer has been dealing (albeit one blip against the Brewers), and the Rangers have won the four other starts he has made for them. The rotation is deep and should get a bigger boost with the pending return of All-Star Nathan Eovaldi.
Why they won’t win
How much is left in the tank? The Mariners have young arms that they are relying on in their rotation and bullpen, which is great for the future but not necessarily reassuring when it’s an unknown entity the reason of this season. The M’s play a lot of close games – hopefully I’m not breaking any news here – and Andrés Muñoz’s outings have been scrutinized since he took over as the de facto closer on this team.
I don’t think the situation itself is the issue but rather the workload that has been foisted upon Muñoz in August. He pitched in four of five games to start the month, then three of the next four after that, including back-to-back games against the Orioles and 1 2/3 innings two nights later in Kansas City. The same can be said for Matt Brash, who had five back-to-back outings in August, including his own stretch of four appearances in five days. Brash has already pitched more innings than he did last year, and there is still a month of high stakes baseball to be played this season.
The biggest unknowns are in the rotation. The Mariners have done a remarkable job to be in this position considering that this has to be about Plan E for the starters right now. Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto mentioned last week on his Seattle Sports show having to adapt for the intended plan of a six-man rotation after an injury to rookie Emerson Hancock.
The guy to tread cautiously with is Bryan Woo, another rookie who is just returning from an arm injury and has a history of them in his past. His 109 innings pitched this season across Double-A and MLB have already blown past his prior high of 57 innings last season. To a lesser extent, the same uncertainty resides with Bryce Miller, who will also set his new high in innings pitched, if the Mariners need these young pitchers to make four to five more starts this season.
The lineup is healthy, but now Houston has pitching questions of its own. Veteran reliever Kendall Graveman left Wednesday’s game with lower back discomfort, and the Astros are about to encounter the same uncertainty the Mariners will face with young pitchers in their rotation. J.P. France is a rookie and Hunter Brown threw just 17 innings during the regular season last year.
There is also the big item of the Astros having been owned by the Mariners this season. Houston is 2-8 against Seattle and already lost the season series, so there’s no chance of the Astros winning a tiebreaker if the teams finish with the same record. Sometimes a team has your number (the Mariners have certainly been on the other end of that with the Astros in the past), and even in the two games the Astros won, the Mariners had the tying run on base in the ninth.
Injuries and the bullpen. The Rangers are tied for the second-most blown saves in MLB, and the erratic bullpen was highlighted by an Aroldis Chapman special on Wednesday night that featured an intentional walk, a walk to load the bases, and hitting D.J. Stewart with the first pitch to bring in the game-winning run in the 10th for the Mets. Chapman has either blown a save or been dealt the loss in three of his last five appearances. The Rangers’ relievers have an ERA of 4.70 (seventh-worst in MLB this season), and since August 1 they have the sixth-worst fWAR (-0.1) in baseball.
This is where the “when healthy” part becomes an important qualifier. The Rangers still aren’t at full strength, and they might not be for the rest of the season. All-Star rookie third baseman Josh Jung went on the injured list with a fractured thumb on Aug. 7, and the Rangers’ eight-game losing streak followed a week later. His initial timeline to return was set for six weeks, which would put him somewhere in the range of the final 8-9 games of the season. Add that onto the lingering absence of Eovaldi, who hasn’t pitched since July 18, and the Rangers have major question marks about the availability of key pieces in the lineup and the rotation as they try to climb back in front of the Mariners and Astros.
If you have read this far, and we thank you kindly for that, you’re probably expecting some kind of prediction about who actually wins the division.
Here is the prediction: This is going to be a lot of fun.
More on the Seattle Mariners
• Mariners rally to beat A’s 5-4, close out August with 21 wins
• Servais provides Seattle Mariners injury updates on Julio, France and Kirby
• Could Mariners add after MLB’s waiver bombshell? ESPN’s Olney weighs in
• The unsung player during Mariners’ hot streak? Teoscar Hernández
• Passan: What about Seattle Mariners’ rise is and isn’t sustainable?