Run prevention is the Mariners’ real problem

Apr 21, 2011, 12:32 AM | Updated: 2:16 pm

By Dave Cameron

(Note from Salk: For the second season, Dave Cameron from USS Mariner and Fangraphs will be writing for this blog. This year, he’ll be writing every other Thursday, alternating with Jeff Sullivan of LookoutLanding. Dave will be focusing on the Mariners from a statistical perspective whereas Jeff will bring his own unique brand of analysis. I’ll also be doing some writing for USS Mariner, bringing a taste of the clubhouse to that site. Enjoy!)

After last season’s debacle, the focus on the 2011 Mariners is understandably on the offense. After all, we all had to suffer through one of the worst offensive seasons in baseball history, and this year’s line-up isn’t exactly the 1927 Yankees either — witness Adam Kennedy hitting third yesterday as an example.

This team has real offensive problems, and their inability to score runs will continue to cost them wins going forward. However, if we do an honest appraisal of how the team has played so far this season, we find that it’s actually run prevention, not run scoring, that has been the real problem.

Jason Vargas stretches after giving up a run to the Cleveland Indians in the fourth inning of the Mariners’ home opener. (AP)

Through 19 games, the Mariners have allowed 98 runs, the most of any team in baseball. Their opponents are racking up 5.1 runs per game despite most of the team’s games being played in bitterly cold April weather. This team was built around pitching and defense, but thus far, neither of those areas have lived up to their end of the bargain. Believe it or not, the Mariners offense has actually been the strength of the team so far.

However, there are reasons to believe that this isn’t going to last. The Mariners aren’t actually pitching all that badly — they’re just pitching badly when it counts the most. With the bases empty, the Mariners have held opponents to just a .238/.301/.353 mark. That mark jumps to .308/.355/.476 with men on base and .317/.378/.516 with runners in scoring position. Because of this, the Mariners have — by far — the lowest strand rate of any team in baseball. Their LOB percentage is just 60.3 percent, with the next worst team being the Boston Red Sox at 65.6 percent. To put that in context, league average is about 70 percent, and last year, the worst team in baseball at stranding runners, the Pittsburgh Pirates, had a LOB percentage of 67.4 percent.

The sequencing of events can have a dramatic impact on how many runs are scored. If a pitcher goes single-groundout-double-strikeout-groundout, odds are pretty good he won’t give up any runs. The man who reached base to lead off may be forced out at second (if they don’t turn a double play), so the double wouldn’t score the runner on the next hit. A strikeout and a groundout with runners at second and third would strand both runners, and the pitcher would work out of the jam.

Meanwhile, a pitcher who goes single-double-groundout-groundout-strikeout may very well give up two runs, as the ground balls would both score runners from third base after the pitcher gave up back-to-back hits to start the inning. While both pitchers got the same events, the timing of those events can lead to wildly different results.

So far, the Mariners have had far too many sequences like the latter. The good news is this is not the kind of thing that is predictive going forward. The timing of hits allowed in the past does little to tell us about when the timing of hits allowed in the future will occur. Instead, we can look at metrics like walk rate, strikeout rate, and home run rate and estimate how many runners the team will strand based on those indicators, getting a better view overall of how the team will perform in the future. FIP, which is based on those three factors, suggests the Mariners should have a team ERA of about 3.50 instead of their actual 4.79 mark. The difference between the two is almost entirely the sequencing of the base runners that they have allowed.

This is, in actuality, a decent pitching staff. Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, and Doug Fister all have the ability to strand runners — they just haven’t done it so far in 2011. They will, though, and even if they don’t change much, their results will improve. The M’s might finish last in the league in run scoring, but they won’t finish last in the league in run prevention, even if that’s how this season has begun.

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Run prevention is the Mariners’ real problem