There’s no shortage of disappointing teams in the early going. The playoff-hopeful Cardinals are 3-6. The playoff-hopeful Rangers are 3-5. The playoff-hopeful Giants are 4-6. Scoot all the way to the bottom of the standings, though, and two teams stand out. The Blue Jays are a terrible 1-7, and Dave just wrote about the decision they could shortly be facing. And the Mariners are a hardly-better 2-8, already multiple games behind every team in the division. Based on the calendar, it remains too early for anyone to panic. Yet no one should doubt that a challenging start can result in significant damage.
It’s not too hard to put a semi-positive spin on things. While the Mariners have wound up losers in eight games, they’ve had a lead at some point in seven. Last night, they lost a game they led 5-0. Over the weekend, they lost a game they led 8-1. Games like that are fluky. A week ago, they lost a game they led in the bottom of the 13th, because they had to use a pitcher who was replacing another pitcher whose wife was having a baby. Tough losses always feel like unfortunate losses. But, they are losses, and they all count just the same. It feels like we just reached the end of spring training, but life comes at you fast.
What sort of damage have the Mariners been dealt? The easiest way to examine this is by looking at the projections. When the season began, the Mariners were sixth in the American League in projected wins, and seventh in projected playoff odds. Now, after just 10 games, they’re down to 12th in both projected wins and playoff odds. I hate hearing about playoff odds in April just as much as you do, because the playoffs are a silly thing to even be thinking about, but it’s an important thing to keep in mind. These games do matter. Saying “it’s early” doesn’t render the early results irrelevant.
To put it a different way, the Mariners seemed like a wild-card contender. Through 10 games, you’d expect them to go 6-4, or 5-5. At 2-8, they’re three or four wins off the expectation, and those don’t just get “made up” through the power of regression. Thinking like that is a fallacy, albeit an extremely common one.
There’s another way we can examine this. We can look at how teams have done in the past when they’ve gotten off to their own lousy starts. Here is a ridiculous plot, covering the last dozen seasons. On the x-axis, winning percentage through the season’s first 10 games. On the y-axis, winning percentage in the rest of the games.
A relationship exists! Of course it does. Better teams over large samples are expected to win more games over small samples. This is just in here to provide a picture to look at. It’s not all random. But — the reason I chose the last dozen years? That’s because I have this handy spreadsheet of preseason team projections dating back to 2005. So we should look at how numbers have worked out between 2005 and 2016.
The current Mariners, again, are 2-8. Over the 12-year window, there were 15 teams that began a season 2-8. Before the year, those teams were projected to win an average of 79 games. Those teams actually won an average of 74 games. Overall, the early losses weren’t erased.
To grab a larger sample, there were 53 teams that began a season 1-9, 2-8, or 3-7. Before the year, those teams were projected to win an average of 77 games. Those teams actually won an average of 73 games. Same kind of result.
Now let’s narrow again. Before this year, the Mariners were projected to be a hair better than .500. No team projected that good has opened 1-9. Five teams projected at least .500 have opened 2-8. Nine more teams projected at least .500 have opened 3-7. On average, going into the year, these 14 teams were projected to win 86 games. These teams actually won an average of 79 games. Either the early damage was substantial, or the results reflected something bad the projections didn’t pick up on.
The Mariners could take heart in what happened in 2011. That year, both the Red Sox and Rays opened 2-8, and the Tigers opened 3-7. They wound up with 90, 91, and 95 wins, respectively, with the Tigers and Rays making the playoffs and the Red Sox just missing. Those Red Sox are remembered for their late-season meltdown, not the early-season sputtering. Very, very obviously, a bad start can be overcome, because there are still 152 more baseball games, and, when you sit and think about it, that is so many baseball games. The Mariners aren’t going to pack up their things and go home.
Yet maybe last year’s Astros are also worth keeping in mind here. At least from a fan’s perspective, they’re a good example of how a weird bad start can be hurtful. The Astros were projected to win 54% of their games. From game No. 11 on, they won 53% of their games. Had they won like that the whole time, they would’ve been closer to the wild card. But the Astros opened 3-7, and they just didn’t really recover. They had their chances, but what a bad start does is greatly reduce a team’s margin of error.
I haven’t addressed the Mariners’ actual players. You learn only so much in a week and a half. In some ways, the news has been quite good. Mitch Haniger has beat the crap out of the ball, and James Paxton has picked up where he left off. Felix Hernandez hasn’t walked a guy in two games. Those three points are greatly encouraging. On the other hand, too many hitters haven’t hit, and guys like Leonys Martin, Mike Zunino, and Nelson Cruz have shown troubling strikeouts. Yovani Gallardo‘s velocity is up, but his results remain Gallardo-y. Hisashi Iwakuma’s velocity is down, and that’s bad. A team with very limited rotation depth has already had to go to work without Drew Smyly. Unexpected bad results always seem to make more sense after the fact. You can glance at the Mariners and see why they’ve been bad.
They’ll still win plenty, because even the worst teams win plenty over six solid months. And the Mariners still seem to have roughly the talent level of a playoff contender, so that’s the consolation. One hot streak and this is all behind them. You just can’t count on a hot streak, and one cold streak is already in the books. Whether you look at the projections or the history, the Mariners are in clear trouble, and as is the case with the Blue Jays, the decisions in a non-competitive season would be difficult. The Mariners are built to win now. It’s never real pretty when win-now teams start losing.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.