Mariners struggle with new and similar problems in opening homestand

Apr 3, 2024, 4:17 PM | Updated: 4:44 pm

Seattle Mariners...

Luis Castillo of the Seattle Mariners hands the ball to manager Scott Servais on April 2, 2024. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

(Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

The Seattle Mariners opened the 2024 season looking to get off to a good start against two teams that aren’t expected to be playoff contenders this year.

The early results were very mixed for the M’s, who went 3-4 on the opening homestand, splitting a four-game set with the Boston Red Sox and dropping two of three to the Cleveland Guardians. They have Thursday off before hitting the road to face the Milwaukee Brewers beginning Friday.

Here’s what you need to know about the Mariners’ start to 2024.

More of the same for the bats

The Mariners had a big spring at the plate, especially to finish up Cactus League play. That hasn’t carried over to the regular season through the first seven games of 2024.

After being shut out on Wednesday, the M’s have scored just 17 runs (2.43 per game). They’ve scored one run or fewer three times already.

The Mariners entered 2024 looking to cut down on strikeouts after finishing with the second-most K’s in 2023. That, too, has been problematic in the early parts of the season.

Related: How worrisome is Seattle Mariners lineup’s early strikeout rate?

Seattle entered Wednesday with the third-most strikeouts in baseball. It should be noted that of the two teams ahead of the M’s there, one, the Los Angeles Dodgers, has played more games than the Mariners due to starting the year early in South Korea.

After striking out eight more times on Wednesday, Seattle is up to 74 strikeouts, meaning the Mariners are seeing strike three more than 10 times a game. They’re also hitting under .200 through the first week of the season.

So far, Ty France is off to a great start. He’s using the whole field and hitting the ball harder than ever. Mitch Haniger has also used the whole field, including an opening day home run, and gotten off to a solid start.

Besides those two, it’s been tough for the majority of the Mariners’ regular bats, and the strikeouts are a big reason.

The Mariners are still seeing a ton of breaking balls, and like last year, they’re not doing much against them.

Related: Seattle Mariners’ problem versus spin unlikely to go away soon

Teams are going to throw the breaking ball a lot in 2024. That’s not just against the Mariners, but all of MLB. As ESPN’s Jeff Passan shared with Brock and Salk on Tuesday, the fastball is essentially the secondary pitch now in favor of traditional secondary offerings like the breaking ball. It’s a better pitch results-wise and pitchers can control it better than ever.

So what’s the remedy?

For the Mariners, it comes down to intent. What are you actually trying to do with those breaking balls?

There have been too many instances where the hitter gets a breaking ball or offspeed pitch on the outer third of the plate and they’re trying to pull the ball. That works sometimes, but more often than not it results in weak contact or a whiff. It’s hard to hit the ball the other way, but you can’t do so unless you’re letting that ball travel and attempting to put a good swing on it either up the middle or to the opposite field.

It’s not just as simple as just laying off the breaking ball and hunting the fastball, especially because the Mariners are seeing so much spin. At some point hitters need to hammer the breaking ball, too. It’s early, but only a few hitters like France and Haniger have showed they’re able to do that.

Swing decisions aren’t just swinging at the “right” pitches or strikes. It largely boils down to what you are trying to do with that specific pitch.

The M’s have the makings of a good lineup, but unless they having better intent and recognizing the breaking ball so they can work ahead, many of the issues we saw play out last year will be on display this year.

Again, it’s been just seven games, but given that cutting down on the whiffs and strikeouts was such a key focus for the Mariners, this has hardly been a promising start for the lineup. Ideally they can regroup after the Thursday off day and start putting together more quality at-bats.

Highs and lows for the Seattle Mariners’ starting rotation

All five of the Mariners’ starting pitchers got at least one start, with two 2023 All-Stars getting two games under their belt.

• Luis Castillo was fine. Not good and certainly not great, but fine.

Castillo’s opening day start was obviously disappointing, going five innings and allowing four runs. His stuff was better on Tuesday when he had seven strikeouts against a tough Cleveland lineup to strikeout, and he was nearly perfect over his first three innings, but that changed in the fourth inning. The Guardians wound up tallying 10 hits, including a home run, off Castillo, in another M’s loss.

Two OK starts hardly warrants a “break glass in case of emergency” mentality with Castillo. He’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball for a long time. He’ll almost certainly figure it out.

It’s also worth noting that while Castillo got off to an awesome start last year with a 1.82 ERA in April, he’s a bit of a slow starter with April and May being his two worst months ERA-wise over the course of his career.

Ideally for the Mariners, Castillo figures it out sooner than later, in part because the bullpen will be tested early due to injuries to Matt Brash and Gregory Santos.

• George Kirby was, well, un-Kirby-like in the first inning of his first start against the Red Sox, issuing two walks. After that, he showed why he’s a true Cy Young contender and really a co-ace of this staff, striking out eight and allowing just four total baserunners in 6 2/3 innings on Friday in a 1-0 win over Boston.

His second start on Wednesday, though, was a rough game all around for the M’s. Kirby again had a rough first inning, and this time it came back to bite him. Kirby allowed five runs over the first two innings, though some of the problem was due to a porous Seattle defense defense. Overall, Kirby lasted just 3 2/3 innings and allowed a career-high eight earned runs.

Kirby is a great young pitcher and will be fine, especially if the M’s can shore things up behind him since he’s in the zone so much and does generate a lot of contact.

• Logan Gilbert was awesome in his first start, pitching seven innings of one-run ball. He, like Kirby in his first start, found a lot of success against a pesky Red Sox lineup, striking out eight and issuing only one walk.

All of Gilbert’s stuff played well, with his splitter again shining through as a great put away pitch. It’s a good sign he was using it both to lefties and righties.

Don’t take for granted how good Gilbert is just because he’s Seattle’s No. 3 starter. He’s probably the best No. 3 starting pitcher in MLB right now.

• Bryce Miller’s first start of the year started off well as he struck out three in the first inning and stranded a runner, but overall it was a disappointing outing for the second-year right-hander as he lasted five innings and allowed four runs and a pair of homers to the Red Sox on Sunday.

Boston generated quite a bit of hard contact against Miller, and and he allowed three runs in the fourth inning, which started off with a leadoff walk.

It was another poor offensive showing with the Mariners scoring just one run, so it’s not like Miller lost that game outright. It’s also just one start.

Miller will look to reduce hard contact his next time out on Saturday in Milwaukee.

• Emerson Hancock performed admirably in his start of the year, working into the sixth inning against Cleveland on Monday and allowing three runs on four hits. That’s about all you can ask for from a rookie No. 5 starter making his fourth career start.

But people are mistaken if they’re thinking the M’s will have a big decision to make when Bryan Woo is healthy and ready to get off the injured list.

Maybe if Hancock can put together more starts like he did Monday, it makes the Mariners more comfortable with really making sure Woo is totally ready and not rushed. But they also were going to do that already given Woo’s extensive injury history.

Hancock’s stuff was better on Monday than he showed really at any point in three starts last year. His fastball velocity was up and he carried that over well late into his star. The changeup also flashed as a plus secondary offering. But Woo is the guy for the M’s if/when healthy. Hancock at least is showing he’s a good fallback option if necessary and called upon.

Defense was offensive

The Mariners were always going to take a step back defensively in 2024 from 2023.

Eugenio Suárez was above-average at third base the last two seasons and is better defensively than the Josh Rojas/Luis Urías platoon the Mariners are currently utilizing. Jarred Kelenic is a plus corner outfielder and is certainly better out there than Mitch Haniger and Dominic Canzone, the latter of whom had a notable blunder on opening day. Jorge Polanco is also a bat-first second baseman.

Julio Rodríguez has all the makings of being a Gold Glover in center field, J.P. Crawford has a Gold Glove to his name already and Cal Raleigh is an above-average defensive catcher. But overall, there were far more defensive question marks with this team entering the season, and many of those have been warranted based on what we’ve seen, especially on Wednesday.

Defense impacts pitching, which is expected to carry this team in 2024. Kirby didn’t have his best stuff on Wednesday, but the defenders behind him hardly helped with misplayed balls, near-misses, two batters reaching first base despite striking out and more, which helped the Guardians jump out to an early lead and drive Kirby’s pitch count up. Check out some of their defensive lowlights right here.

Simply put: It was ugly. It was tough on Wednesday, and it’s been far from clean in other games, too.

On top of shoring things up defensively, those more risky defenders have to hit in order to prove their worth and value. And given how things have started for the entire lineup, the entire team needs to pick it up there, too.

If the M’s are going to take a step back defensively, those bats need to do more to make up that ground. But the defense needs to at least make the routine plays, which has been more of a rollercoaster than it should be to open the season.

More on the Seattle Mariners

• Why a World Series winner is so bullish on Seattle Mariners this season
• Mariners adding depth with former Cy Young from division rival
• Mariners claim LHP Sammy Peralta off waivers from White Sox
• Seattle Mariners OF Taylor Trammell claimed by LA Dodgers
• Seattle Mariners’ Andrés Muñoz already dominant and has new weapon

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