Drayer: One key to Mariners’ 2019 success? Making pitchers work

Apr 12, 2019, 11:20 AM | Updated: 11:27 am
The Mariners have scored 117 runs in 15 games. (Getty)

With the Mariners off to their best and perhaps most unexpected start in team history, the questions come flying in from all corners. Is this real? How are they doing it? How much of this can they sustain? What the heck is happening?

O’Neil: Believe them or not, Mariners have had exceedingly rare start

It is time to get beyond the “let’s just enjoy this” phase – although by all means, enjoy this. Why wouldn’t you? – and into the how’s and why’s.

What’s happening on the field for the Mariners right now isn’t a mystery to those in the clubhouse, and it goes beyond a bunch of guys who like each other that happen to be playing good ball offensively. You have heard the hitters talking about it in interviews before and after the games:

“Just putting up good at bats.”

“Trying to get a good pitch to hit.”

“Trying to get the barrel to the ball.”

“Grinding out at bats.” 

You’ve seen the results: 117 runs scored in 15 games. But the why and the how may still be a bit hazy.

Perhaps this will help illustrate better what we are seeing on the field.

The Mariners are making pitchers work. Thursday in Kansas City, Jorge López became just the second starter this year to pitch a complete six innings against the Mariners. Two nights before, Jakob Junis seemed to be handling the Mariners – but he was out of the game after four innings, having thrown 94 pitches. That’s been the story of this offense. They have been absolutely unrelenting in grinding down starting pitchers and getting into the bullpen, which can have an affect on the game at hand, and on the entire series, as bullpens get extended when pressed into early action.

We’ve seen this and we know this. Yet still, how is this lineup made up of younger players looking to establish themselves, older players looking to re-establish themselves, players that were expected to be either placeholders or not expected to be on the roster in the first place and, finally, players that replaced stars in the game, doing what they are doing?

As a unit they are much more disciplined at the plate. In 2018, the Mariners as a team had an O-Swing rate of 31.1%, which was the 16th-lowest in MLB. In 2019, the Mariners have posted a rate 24.6%, second only to the Los Angeles Dodgers. How those numbers break down into the lineups better illustrates how the Mariners have become most starting pitchers’ worst nightmares in ’19:

2018 O-Swing Percentage
Gordon 41.4
Segura 34.6
Canó 33.4
Cruz 31.9
Seager 29.1
Haniger 25.9
Healy 36.1
Zunino 34.6
Heredia 20.2

2019 O-Swing Percentage
Smith 20.6
Haniger 23.2
Santana 20.3
Encarnación 21.5
Bruce 28.6
Healy 27.6
Beckham 23.6
Narváez 35.5
Gordon 20.2

There is no break for the pitcher in the 2019 lineup. Bruce may chase more but he can also do serious damage. Narváez is swinging a lot out of zone, but also making contact 76.9 percent of the time, as opposed to Zunino’s 47.1% O-zone contact in 2019. The fact that both Gordon and Healy have made such dramatic improvements shows that this is not just a matter of new players brought in helping; there are systems in place that, according to Scott Servais, are being presented in a different manner this year that appear to be of impact. Player buy-in could be a factor as well.

The result? The current team is making pitchers work hard for every out and it goes beyond not swinging at pitches out of the zone. We have seen Mariners hitters do what some of the best hitters in the game do in knowing when to lay off or try to foul off good pitchers’ pitches that are in the zone in order to get to a pitch they can do more with. Their strikeout and in-zone contact rates may not be the best, but some strikes are best not put in play. The Mariners indeed are looking for their pitch to hit.

The Mariners will face good starting pitching in the current homestand with the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians in town. They cannot be expected to continue winning at the rate that they have been but it will be interesting to see what this offense does against elite pitching a little deeper in the still-young season. If they hold serve against the Astros and Indians, perhaps it is time to start asking bigger picture questions. Those are two of the teams that led Jerry Dipoto to make the decision to “step back,” after all.

While the belief is that a club truly doesn’t show what it is until the 50-60 game mark, if the Mariners can hold their own in that time, and if slow starters like Boston and New York continue to struggle, the landscape could be different and we could be having some interesting conversations in June. That of course is ridiculous-case scenario and won’t be predicated on offense alone. It’s okay to dare to dream. Regardless of outcome, if what we are seeing now is the Mariners’ new offensive identity and something they can move forward, then there is an aspect of “realness” to what we are seeing – and much will have been gained in step one of the step back.

Stecker: We’re about to find out if unbelievable M’s are to be believed

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Drayer: One key to Mariners’ 2019 success? Making pitchers work