MIKE SALK

Salk on Mariners: What ‘it’s early’ does and doesn’t mean

Apr 11, 2024, 1:20 AM | Updated: 11:51 am

Seattle Mariners J.P. Crawford...

J.P. Crawford of the Seattle Mariners reacts after grounding out on April 9, 2024. (Kevin Sousa/Getty Images)

(Kevin Sousa/Getty Images)

“It’s early.”

No words have frustrated Seattle Mariners fans quite like those ones. (Well, I could probably think of a few others, like “now batting, Chone Figgins,” but hopefully you get my point).

I think I understand why. When a team starts as horribly as the Mariners have each of the last three years, especially given the high expectations that come with having a superstar like Julio Rodríguez in your lineup, no one wants to hear any excuses. And “early” sounds like an excuse. It sounds like the games don’t matter. It sounds like the poor performance is acceptable.

It invalidates your frustration because it runs contrary to what your eyes clearly see.

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So why do you keep hearing it from the manager, the GM, the president of baseball operations, reporters, announcers, analysts and radio hosts alike? Are they all trying to make excuses for the team? Are they all just baseball elitists who think they see the game “better” than you do? Are they either protecting their job security or covering their tails?

No. I think they just mean it a little differently than you might be hearing it.

Before we tackle what I think it means, let’s eliminate what it doesn’t mean. Speaking for myself, it does not mean the games don’t matter. Games in April matter every bit as much as the ones in September. They might not be as packed with pressure but they matter just as much. They might be played differently – managers and players have to account for the looooong season, and they tend to treat early games like marathon runners who set a manageable pace before sprinting all out once the finish line is in sight. But they certainly matter.

Early also does not mean excusable. No one wants to see lousy baseball, and what we’ve seen so far from the Mariners would qualify for that description. The offense has been stagnant, the pitching subpar, and the defense worse than anyone would have expected. Being early doesn’t mean those things are OK, and it doesn’t mean they aren’t true. No one thinks the Mariners have played well to start this season, and that includes any and everyone who has said that it’s early.

This year, it’s even more problematic because of the emphasis the team put on trying to fix this trend. They addressed the issue by clearly stating they were aware of its existence and then changing their approach to solve the puzzle.

Being early also doesn’t guarantee that a big winning streak is ahead. The team has relied on those in each of the last two years but they aren’t automatically assumed.

And it doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to react emotionally to what you are seeing, either. I certainly do! No one wants to see a crucial error. Everyone gets mad when a team gets shut out. It’s completely normal to feel the sing of every loss.

But to me, “early” means that it’s too soon to pass judgement on the future.

Baseball, more than any other major sport, is played over a long stretch of games. That’s handy because it’s also the sport that relies on averages to tell us a story more than any other. Good players have bad stretches, bad players sometimes play very well, and those stretches can last longer than you would think. Generally, it takes a long time for them to even out. But by the end of the season (or sometimes the end of a career), we have a solid amount of data and can determine what (or who) was successful and what was not.

That is nearly impossible to do by looking at a 10- or 12-game snapshot. Unlike basketball or football, baseball teams are not always what they appear in a small sample size. The 2022 Mariners are a great example. They were neither as good as they appeared during their record win streak nor as bad as they seemed to start that season. Over time, we got a true measure of their worth.

The 2024 Mariners have played horribly so far. They attempted to cut down on strikeouts this offseason yet have seen those skyrocket. They traded power for contact and instead have seen a decline in both. They gambled that they could survive despite weakening their defense and it has hurt them in a handful of games. Their pitching has offered them quality starts in just four of 13 games and has failed to lead the team the way it needs to for them to be successful. All of these things are true and all of them are frustrating.

But the fact that those things have been true for 13 games does not mean they will be true for the next 149. Nor does it mean they won’t be. It simply means it has been true for these 13, and if it continues, the team won’t finish anywhere close to .500, let alone in a playoff spot or with the division title.

So when is it no longer early?

It’s a fair question with no specific answer. Generally you need at least a month (maybe two) to generate a large enough sample size to make judgements with any confidence. And even then, players and teams often turn things around for better or worse. But what stands out to me is that manager Scott Servais and the Mariners aren’t treating this slow start as something that must be accepted.

In Game 13, Jorge Polanco dropped from third to fifth in the lineup. It was an easy move to get a hot Ty France behind Julio and to give Polanco a break. But what struck me more was that catcher Cal Raleigh played in that game at all. The Mariners are planning to play him a lot this year, but that plan has always presumably included him getting days off when they play a matinee following a night game. The series finale in Toronto fit into that category, but there was Cal hitting seventh with a lefty on the mound. It turned out to be an important spot as he drove the game-winning home run (his second of the season) in the 10th.

Fans often want to know that the team is taking things seriously and showing the same sense of urgency that they themselves feel, especially during a losing stretch. Modern managers don’t flip tables and they don’t call out or bench their players very often. But if you are looking for proof of urgency, consider that decision to play Cal in the last game of a road trip. Consider Ryne Stanek closing the game in the 10th despite the five-run lead. Those are real indications that the team takes the losses just as seriously as you do, even if they express it differently.

It is early. The story of this season has not yet been written. But the people involved know it won’t stay early forever and this team needs to play a lot better for it to have a happy ending.

More on the Seattle Mariners

• Beef Continues: Cal Raleigh burns Blue Jays manager after big HR
Why Passan is ‘not there yet’ on panicking about Mariners
• What Servais said about slow starts for Julio, Castillo and M’s
• Seattle Mariners Roster Moves: Seven players involved in flurry
Seattle Mariners infielder tests the limits with impossibly slow pitch

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