While the Dodgers’ bolt from the gate isn’t too surprising given their back-to-back NL pennants and preseason playoff odds around 90% (though yes, I reaaaally nailed the timing of my investigation into their hitting), the Mariners’ hot start is the kind of early-season anomaly that reminds us how reality often fails to conform to our preconceptions. Expected to be a bystander during a rebuilding year, Seattle opened the season by sweeping a two-game series in Japan against last year’s upstarts, the A’s, and has continued to roll. They own the majors’ best record (11-2) and run differential (+40) so far.
The Mariners did spend most of last year in contention, ultimately notching 89 wins — their highest total since 2003 — but finishing eight games behind the A’s for the second AL Wild Card spot. In missing out on the October festivities, they ran their postseason drought to 17 years, the longest in North American professional sports. Given a club record payroll ($157.9 million as of Opening Day 2018) and the game’s worst farm system, general manager Jerry Dipoto opted to plunge the team into rebuilding mode, bidding adieu to free agent Nelson Cruz and trading away Robinson Cano, Alex Colome, Edwin Diaz, James Paxton, Jean Segura, and Mike Zunino, among others — nearly all of the popular kids, basically. With Kyle Seager suffering a torn tendon in his left hand, the only players common to Seattle’s 2018 and ’19 Opening Day lineups were Dee Gordon, Mitch Haniger, and Ichiro Suzuki, the last of whom used the Japan series as a farewell tour.
Like the Dodgers, the Mariners’ fast start owes primarily to a booming offense that’s averaging 8.0 runs per game while batting .294/.374/.568 with 33 home runs and a 163 wRC+; all of those figures lead the majors save for the on-base percentage, which is merely the best in the AL. Four times, they’ve reached double digits in runs, and only once have they scored fewer than five (they beat the Angels in a 2-1 squeaker on April 2). Here’s how their scoring over the first 13 games stacks up historically:
|9T||White Sox||1901||9-4||100||68||32||83-53||1||AL Pennant|
As I noted in my companion piece on the Dodgers, the fact that only eight of the 19 other teams in the above top 20 made the playoffs is skewed somewhat by the presence of four teams from the inaugural weeks of the American League in 1901, namely the Baltimore Orioles (dissolved just two years later and replaced by the New York Highlanders-turned-Yankees), Boston Americans (now the Red Sox), Detroit Tigers, and Chicago White Sox. Team history-wise, the Mariners are not only scoring at a record clip, but they own a better record than their 2001 club, which “only” won 10 of their first 13 games and had just a +22 run differential by this juncture. Among their other playoff teams, their 1997 and 2000 squads both started 8-5, while their 1995 team went just 7-6 through 13 games.
While the Dodgers were projected to have one of the NL’s most robust offenses, the Mariners were merely projected to rank 10th in the AL at 4.33 runs per game. Thus far, only two of the team’s 11 players with at least 10 plate appearances have a wRC+ below 100, namely infielder Dylan Moore (95) and center fielder Mallex Smith (93). Meanwhile, they’ve gotten otherworldly performances from Tim Beckham (.400/.489/.825, 263 wRC+), Edwin Encarnacion (.316/.458/.632, 208 wRC+), Domingo Santana (.345/.429/.618, 196 wRC+), and Daniel Volgelbach (.500/.621/1.364, 410 wRC+, with five homers in just 29 PA) with Ryon Healy (154 wRC+) and Jay Bruce (144 wRC+, with an AL-high seven homers) making strong showings as well. Save for Vogelbach and Healy, none of those players were Mariners in 2018, and while there’s no way that those extreme performances will sustain, it’s not out of the question that Dipoto has snagged a few rebounds. Beckham, for example, was a 3.4-win player in 2017 with the Rays and Orioles before slipping below replacement level (-0.5 WAR) last year, and the story is similar for Santana with the Brewers (from 3.3 in 2017 to 0.7 last year), Bruce with the Reds and Mets (from 2.6 to 0.1), and Encarnacion with the Indians (2.3 to 1.0).
Encarnacion did something very cool on Monday against the Royals, homering twice in the sixth inning. As it’s a feat he had done before, on July 26, 2013 for the Blue Jays against the Astros, he joined the company of Andre Dawson, Jeff King, Willie McCovey, and Alex Rodriguez as the only players with a pair of two-fers.
Thus far, the new lineup has shown itself to be considerably more powerful and disciplined than the old one. Last year, the M’s ranked 11th in the league in home runs (176) and isolated power (.154), and eighth in slugging percentage (.408), and the players responsible for more than half of their homers are elsewhere. This year’s squad has swung at an AL-low 24.5% of pitches outside the zone (down from 31.1%) and walked 10.3% of the time (up from 7.1%, the AL’s fourth-lowest rate). Beckham, Encarnacion, Santana, and Smith have all walked in at least 12.5% of their plate appearances, though only Encarnacion and Santana have career rates above 10%. While their track records suggest regression ahead, Beckham, who owns career marks of 6.6% in the walk department and 32.7% in O-Zone%, does seem to be following through with a more selective approach; he’s swinging at just 24.8% of pitches outside the one and walking 14.9% of the time.
On the other side of the ball, the Mariners have allowed a hefty 4.92 runs per game, the sixth-highest mark in the AL, but some of that is on a defense that is somehow already 23 runs below average via Defensive Runs Saved, with their four up-the-middle starters (Narvaez at catcher, Gordon at second, Beckham at short, and Smith in center field) each at least three runs below average. The left side of the infield, which also features Healy playing third base (where he owns a career -13.9 UZR/150), is particularly porous and anything but sure-handed, with the pair combining for — and look, the samples are small, otherwise I wouldn’t be citing this — nine errors and a fielding percentage below the Hobson Line. The team’s .685 defensive efficiency is 10th the league, and the pitching staff has already allowed an MLB-high 14 unearned runs.
That aside, the rotation, featuring newcomer Yusei Kikuchi and holdovers Marco Gonzales, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake, and Wade LeBlanc, has combined for a respectable 3.66 ERA and 3.50 FIP, though the starters’ 16.9% strikeout rate is the league’s third-lowest mark, offset by an MLB-low 4.2% walk rate. It’s far too soon to read much into the individual performances, particularly with regards to Hernandez’s continued decline; bypassed for the Opening Day start for the first time since 2008, he didn’t make his first appearance until the team’s seventh game of the season, then lasted just one inning in his second start on Monday due to food poisoning. The bullpen has been less impressive (3.97 ERA, 4.71 FIP), destabilized by a lat strain that landed closer Hunter Strickland on the 60-day injury list, and a 13.5% walk rate from the unit as a whole.
With their torrid start, the Mariners have opened up a 3.5-game lead on the Astros (7-5) in the AL West, with the Angels 4.5 back, and the A’s and Rangers each five back. Where they began the year projected for 75 wins, with just a 2.3% chance of reaching the playoffs, their forecast is now up to 81 wins, with a 13.7% chance at the playoffs. That’s higher than last year’s A’s (9.2%) or Braves (3.2%) when they left the gate, and roughly where the Brewers (13.6%) and Rockies (11.3%) sat a year ago today. Perhaps this summer in Seattle won’t be a write-off, after all. Hope springs eternal.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.