The Mariners Are Trying To Be the Clutchiest Team on Record… Again

On July 26, the Seattle Mariners experienced what was perhaps the apex of their season. Down 6-0 against the Astros until the third inning, they embarked on an improbable rally that would culminate in an 11-8 victory. Let’s take some time to admire Dylan Moore and his swing, which produced the grand slam that punctuated the uphill battle:

Chills! It was a great moment, and not just for Mariners fans but for baseball in general. Who doesn’t love a cathartic underdog upset? (Well, maybe not the Astros in this moment.) But it was also a reminder of how the team had gotten to that point. Despite an ugly run differential, the Mariners had managed to squeeze out key wins throughout the season. This latest against the Astros gave them a 55-46 record. Suddenly, a Wild Card berth didn’t seem out of reach.

Two weeks later, the Mariners are still going. I had planned to write this article as early as July 24, when I tweeted about the team’s offense. In the back of my mind, I sort of assumed they’d fizzle out. But here we are, and the Mariners have a respectable 58-51 record – three games behind Oakland, and just a few more behind Boston. No team has been more clutch.

Is this sustainable? I can’t say. And really, I’m more interested in the process of getting to 58 wins. You might know this already, but how the Mariners have distributed their runs has been a huge reason for their success. Seattle’s offense as a whole is unremarkable. But when broken down into specific situations, its prowess begins to make sense. To begin, below is each team’s offense by wRC+ in low-leverage situations:

As a refresher, low-leverage situations are ones that aren’t very exciting. There’s not much at stake. Your favorite team is down by eight runs in the second inning. Alternatively, the team is only trailing by one, but the game isn’t on the line. When there’s a lull, the Mariners have combined to produce a wRC+ of 80, tied for lowest in the league. Maybe they thrive on a bit more excitement. Because moving onto the medium-leverage situations, the bats look batter:

The game has moved onto the fifth or sixth inning, and there’s now more reason to pay attention. That one run lead is starting to look valuable. It might be the difference between a win and a loss. Thankfully for the Mariners, their offense in an average situation is also average, sporting a wRC+ of exactly 100. Of course, a few innings remain. In our fictional game, high-leverage situations have started to emerge:

Every baseball fan knows this classic high-leverage spot: bottom of the ninth in a tie game, a final opportunity to seize the win without extra-inning shenanigans. And in the heat of the moment, the Mariners transform into the league’s best offense – and by a wide margin, too. I’m looking at the numbers and still can’t believe how their production matches up so perfectly with the given situation. It’s oddly poetic.

What’s the driving force behind that high-leverage 135 wRC+? Some of it is good ol’ batted ball luck – the Mariners have the league’s third-worst BABIP in low leverage at .257 against a seventh-best .332 BABIP in high leverage. They also have a HR/FB rate of 11.9% in low leverage and a rate of 21.9% in high leverage; the latter is another league-leading figure. Their strikeout rate also goes down in high leverage moments. The Mariners have been more keen to make contact in crucial moments, and when they do succeed, it has generally led to good results.

Formally, this phenomenon is known as cluster luck, which Jake Mailhot did a fantastic job investigating over at Lookout Landing. To sum up a few points, the Mariners’ run differential is skewed due to an abundance of blowout losses and one- or two-run victories. If we consult the BaseRuns formula, the team had an absurd amount of offensive and pitching “luck” in July, meaning their run differential was much higher than expected. Nonetheless, 57 wins are 57 wins. Heading into the heat of August, the Mariners are where they want to be.

If the fun, flaming-hot, and idiosyncratic 2021 Mariners seem familiar, that’s because they’re walking in the footsteps of a former troupe of underdogs. The title of this article is an allusion to an old Jeff Sullivan piece dissecting the 2018 Mariners, who seemed destined to become one of major league baseball’s “clutchiest” teams.

Again indeed, because this year’s Mariners are also on pace for an all-time clutch total. Credit goes to Isabelle Minasian of Lookout Landing for mentioning this first. She used our site’s total clutch numbers, but for our purposes, I made a few adjustments. I split the Mariners’ total into batting and pitching, then expressed it on a per-162 game basis. This allows us to compare the 2021 Mariners against other historic seasons, and together form the following table:

Top Ten Clutchest Teams, 1974-2021
Season Team Batting Pitching Total Total/162
2008 LAA 7.4 7.3 14.7 14.7
2021 SEA 7.5 2.0 9.5 14.1
2016 TEX 8.2 4.6 12.8 12.8
2012 SFG 4.8 7.3 12.1 12.1
2006 OAK 4.4 7.7 12.1 12.1
2018 SEA 4.5 7.0 11.5 11.5
2011 ARI 4.4 6.6 11.0 11.0
2004 CIN 6.3 4.5 10.8 10.8
1977 BAL 6.2 4.5 10.7 10.7
1990 CHW 8.1 2.6 10.7 10.7
2007 ARI 2.6 8.1 10.7 10.7

Yes, there’s a legitimate chance that the 2021 Mariners claim the throne by season’s end – that is, if they keep up their current output. You can spot the 2018 Mariners, whose sixth-place spot is a remnant of their efforts, valiant but in the end unsuccessful. It’s disingenuous to say the 2021 squad is the second-most clutch team since 1974, when we first have win probability data, but this is where they are. You can’t deny what the Mariners have achieved thus far.

There’s a key difference this time, however. Unlike the 2018 Mariners and most teams in the table, this squad’s success has been driven by the offense. Depending on your perspective, this is either an encouraging or discouraging sign. On one hand, pitching in general tends to be more volatile than hitting. On the other hand, clutch pitching seems more controllable than clutch hitting. If your team has a stable of lights-out relievers, those high-leverage situations aren’t as scary. The closer enters a one-run game, does his magic, and shuts the door.

Three years ago, the Mariners had Edwin Díaz. They also had Alex Colomé and James Pazos, two fantastic setup men. The current Mariners ‘pen is also great, ranking third in FIP, so I’m not sure why it hasn’t contributed much in the clutch department. With this in mind, the decision to trade Kendall Graveman remains puzzling. Diego Castillo did make his way to Seattle in a subsequent trade, but after everything, there’s been a net loss of one JT Chargois. The low-scoring Mariners need as much help from their pitching as they can get – why weaken a strength?

But I’m not here to judge. Plus, Abraham Toro, the return for Graveman, has been a behemoth ever since his arrival. Or to be more precise, the best player in baseball:

So maybe the solution is just that. More bats! More clutch hitting! Seriously, though – the Mariners may be first in high-leverage wRC+, but they’re also 26th in their number of high-leverage plate appearances. They’ve taken advantage of their opportunities so far, but those opportunities have been few and far between. It’s what differentiates good teams from merely average ones. If the Mariners want to join the former group, they will have to boost and even out their production.

Even if it all comes crashing down, the Mariners don’t have much to lose. I’m not too keen on their planned timeline, but I doubt 2021 was the year they thought they would make a run for contention. They didn’t commit to a superstar at the deadline, and most of the young, emerging core is still here. Maybe it’s foolish to expect the Mariners to keep up their clutch ways. But at this point, who cares? They’ve been entertaining, and there’s around two months of baseball left. If there is a will, there is a way.





Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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steveo
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steveo

The Mariners are such a fun team. They remind me somewhat of the 2017 Yankees. They could’ve been just 2 games back of the A’s in the wildcard if it weren’t for Jared Kelenic inexplicably whiffing on a fly ball against the Rays. He was there… he just whiffed it. Don’t think the Mariners are particularly real, but it’s fun at least.

catmanwayne
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catmanwayne

To be fair to Kelenic, it’s damn near impossible to keep track of fly balls at The Trop, and it was his first ever series there.

steveo
Member
steveo

Fair enough. But in that spot it’s bad.

FunFella13
Member
Member
FunFella13

2017 Yankees had Judge / Gregorius / Hicks / Gardner, not sure any M is producing like that.