Salk: Do Mariners need a different reaction to another slow start?

Apr 4, 2024, 12:23 AM

Seattle Mariners J.P. Crawford...

Boston's Pablo Reyes steals second against J.P. Crawford of the Seattle Mariners on March 30, 2024. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

(Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Baseball, more than any other sport, can be deceiving. Sometimes the better team doesn’t win. Sometimes the box score doesn’t represent the way a game was played. Sometimes after a lousy homestand, things are better than the numbers might indicate.

And sometimes it’s worse.

Mariners struggle with new and similar problems in opening homestand

Often we hear that a team that looks lifeless simply isn’t hitting. It’s hard to look like you are trying when you aren’t getting on base, and so a lack of production gets misinterpreted as a lack of effort. It’s a criticism that (understandably) drives managers and players crazy.

While the Seattle Mariners haven’t hit well to start the season, unfortunately that isn’t the extent of the problems. They have failed to pitch well, run the bases consistently or play the kind of defense that should be expected. And it was all on display Wednesday as fans booed the team just seven games into their season.

Wednesday: Seattle Mariners stumble in 8-0 loss to Cleveland

It was an awful game. The 8-0 score was rough, but it still only told part of the story. George Kirby was off his game right from the start. The bats were anemic. But the kicker was watching eight – yes, eight – plays in the field that were not made.

I wish I hadn’t counted them all, but I did. Two booted ground balls, two dropped third strikes, one errant throw, one collision between middle infielders, one throw up the line, and another groundball hit that suggested a lack of range. While none of them were ruled errors, they were all makeable plays that added up to a terrible look and lots of frustrated customers.

It also wasn’t the first time this year the Mariners haven’t played up to their potential. In fact, you could argue they didn’t played more than one good, complete game on their opening homestand. There have been positives certainly – Julio’s walkoff, J.P.’s home run, a couple of excellent pitching performances and some quality work out of the back of the bullpen.

But 17 runs in seven games is not going to cut it, especially at home. They hit just four home runs in that stretch, compiling a team OPS of just .550 that is the worst in baseball.

The pitching hasn’t been much better. Just two quality starts out of seven opportunities is nowhere close to what you would expect from this vaunted rotation. The baserunning has been, at times, suspect. And we’ve already covered the defense. Honestly, about the only thing they haven’t done yet is blow a save, and they really have had only two chances to do that.

So yeah, this has not been the start anyone wanted. And while that comes with the usual warnings about reading too much into a slow start or any small sample size, this is starting to look all too familiar. I am determined to let the 2024 team write its own story without being beholden to the 2023 version, but to completely ignore the parallels would be impossible.

It’s easy for anyone watching to get upset. But there is one person that, more than anyone else, has to make some decisions on how to handle this. This is a tough spot for any manager and it’s one Scott Servais needs to handle once again. He has a few options.

He could wait it out. Certainly, we’ve seen this approach from him before. And it has worked… eventually. His patience was rewarded in 2022 with an epic hot streak and ultimately a playoff berth. Last year, he got the hot summer and nearly paid it off in September.

But this season was supposed to be different. They had a plan to try to address the cold starts. They brought in players who make more contact, introduced a new philosophy designed to help in the lousy weather, and talked about it openly in the hopes of alleviating the problem. They talked about how April wins count as much as the ones in September and recognized that the slow start last year likely cost them a playoff spot.

Maybe it’s time for a different approach? Managers generally don’t want to push too many buttons early in the season, because if it doesn’t work, there is nowhere left to go. It can seem desperate. And it runs against all the accepted adages regarding the length of the season.

But to fans and possibly to some of the core leaders in the clubhouse, this isn’t a small sample size. It feels more like Year 3 of the same story. And this time it comes after an offseason in which Scott needed to travel all over the map to visit his players and keep the clubhouse from fracturing over the way last season ended and the offseason started.

The clubhouse was back together in Peoria and everyone said they were ready to forgive and move on. But as I wrote in February:

We won’t find out how successful it’s been until adversity strikes. In a 162-game season, that is a matter of when, not if. Vibes change according to the success of the team, but it will be up to Scott to keep the boiling lava from erupting to the surface.

How will the clubhouse react to early struggles?

There is a lot on the line for this team. They have a strong nucleus and a generational player coming into his prime in Julio. But they also have a fidgety fanbase and a group of leaders that can be suspicious. This slow start can’t turn into an extended slump.

I don’t know how I would handle this if I was managing this team. There are plenty of reasons to stay the course, lead with love and support, and wait for the natural course of things to take players back to their expected norms. There is also a strong case that it’s time to show a little more urgency than is normal for April. That could mean shaking up the lineup, an earlier-than-normal team meeting, or even calling some players out in the press. That comes with plenty of risk, but so does allowing a slow start to fester.

I do know that Scott has had a lot of success by being transparent. By going to his leaders and being straight with them. And I do think there are some significant issues right now. Yes, players know that a seven-game sample size (especially one in which you are 3-4) is too small to judge much of anything. But we’ve seen what happens when the batting averages shrink and players start pressing because they see it on the jumbotron every time they step to the plate.

Ultimately, there are only so many buttons a manager can push. A slow offensive start won’t be overcome by yelling, screaming or embarrassing anyone. But as a smart baseball friend recently told me, “at a minimum, you must control the controllables.” The defense and baserunning need to be better. The concentration needs to be better. And hopefully the hits, runs and wins will follow.

Things seem bad after the first homestand of the season, but remember how we started this discussion – with the knowledge that baseball can be deceiving. A 3-4 record after two series is no cause for overreaction. But the way they have played should be cause for some sort of reaction. Hopefully that comes sooner rather than later.

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
Seattle Mariners’ problem versus spin unlikely to go away soon
• Seattle Mariners OF Taylor Trammell claimed by LA Dodgers
How worrisome is Seattle Mariners lineup’s early strikeout rate?

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