Six harsh truths about the Mariners' offense
Once again, scoring enough runs on a consistent basis proved to be a challenge for the Mariners.
Entering the last weekend of the season, the Mariners were in the running for a wild card berth. Heck, the AL West title was even within reach. But in the end, Seattle’s 2023 playoff aspirations were abruptly dashed by a 6-1 loss to Texas in game-161.
Now, Mariners fans are left to reflect on why their team isn’t playing meaningful October baseball this year, as it did in 2022. For me, it comes down to one crucial phase of the game - run production.
Sure, the pitching staff encountered difficulties late in the season. But run prevention was Seattle’s strength. Mariner pitchers and defenders allowed the third-fewest runs in MLB (659). Only Milwaukee (647) and San Diego (648) allowed fewer runners to reach home.
For this reason, I’d like to share six truths, or takeaways, about the Mariners’ offense and how it affected the season that was.
Nothing we’re about to discuss is breaking news. We’ve talked about some of it before. But hopefully, this conversation provides more clarity and perspective on how Seattle’s offensive challenges impacted the team’s success.
Perhaps this exercise also provides clues on where change is needed moving forward.
Inconsistency was the lineup’s calling card
The Mariners’ offensive stats and corresponding MLB rankings suggest the team’s run production effort was slightly better-than-average. Still, anyone who watched this team on a regular basis knows the offense was consistently inconsistent.
To help demonstrate this point, let’s consider the monthly wOBA of Seattle’s lineup. Perhaps this will be an eye-opening experience for some of you. It certainly was for me.
Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) is a sabermetric version of on-base percentage (OBP) that credits hitters for how they reach base rather than treating all on-base events equally, as OBP does. For example, a double is more valuable to run production than a single, a home run more than a double, etc. The MLB average wOBA this year was .318
This season, the Mariners’ .319 wOBA was essentially league-average. On the surface, this doesn’t sound too bad. However, the team’s wOBA waxed and waned so much during the 2023 campaign its lineup produced an above-average wOBA in just two months - July and August.
The angry pessimist may scream the Mariners mostly played clubs with losing records, and substandard pitching staffs, in August. True. But the same can’t be said about July.
Twenty-two of the 26 games the Mariners played in July were against six teams that had winning records at the time - Houston, San Francisco, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Toronto, and Arizona. Seattle had a 15-7 record against this stiffer competition with a .259 AVG/.335 OBP/.450 SLG slash-line and .339 wOBA.
Okay, now let’s perform the same monthly wOBA review using individual Mariners. To simplify matters, I selected seven core players from the Opening Day lineup, who had 400-plus plate appearances.
A similar trend reveals itself - inconsistent productivity.
J.P. Crawford had an above-average wOBA in five of six months. Arguably the team’s MVP, Crawford was the lone Mariner with an above-average wOBA in three consecutive months.
It’s important to recognize Raleigh played the most demanding position and appeared behind the plate in 44 of Seattle’s final 46 games, including 39 starts. This makes the Florida State product’s performance with his bat even more impressive.
And the rest?
Still, the preceding table tells us France produced a decent wOBA until July. He then delivered hot-and-cold production for the remainder of the 2023 campaign.
In Hernández’s case, he posted an above-average wOBA in June and August. That’s it. The eight-year veteran’s wOBA was below .290 in the other four months, which doesn’t align with the “he’s a slow starter” narrative I’ve been hearing more-and-more lately.
Another veteran hovering near league-average was Eugenio Suárez. He appeared in every game this season, which is a testimony to the 32-year-old’s dedication to his craft and teammates. But like Hernández, Suárez outperformed the league norm just twice in six months.
Finally, there’s Jarred Kelenic.
The 24-year-old was the best hitter on the Mariners and top-20 in the majors during March and April. But from there, his wOBA went into a tailspin with the metric remaining below the .300 mark during his final three months.
The lineup was built to strike out a lot
It’s been a topic discussed ad nauseam - the Mariners struck out too much this year. Seattle hitters combined for a 25.9% strikeout rate - only Minnesota (26.6%) was worse.
Still, the fact the Mariners accrued so many strikeouts in 2023 shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, most of the players with high strikeout rates this year also struck out a ton in 2022.
For me, it’s important to remember this fact whenever we hear manager Scott Servais or the front office suggest the Mariners need to cut down on strikeouts. This is undoubtedly true. But as we discussed in mid-May, player decisions made last offseason set Seattle on the path of a high-strikeout season.
There wasn’t enough SLG
Some fans may contend striking out often is part of today’s game. True, but it’s important for hitters and teams with a lot of swing-and-miss to deliver power when they do make contact. That wasn’t necessarily the case for Seattle in 2023.
Five teams, including the Mariners, had at least 200 more strikeouts than hits this year. Only one boasted an above-average SLG - the Twins.
Teams with 200-or-more strikeouts than hits
MIN - 319 (.427 SLG)
OAK - 309 (.370 SLG)
SEA - 271 (.413 SLG)
SFG - 221 (.383 SLG)
NYY - 220 (.397 SLG)
MLB average SLG = .414
Some Mariners defenders may suggest a .413 SLG was essentially league-average. Another true statement. But the second-highest strikeout rate in MLB and an average-ish slugging percentage isn’t an ideal blend for a club striving to reach the postseason.
Something else to consider: Suárez and France combined for 22.3-percent of the club’s plate appearances. Yet, each posted a SLG below the .400-mark.
It’s tough for a lineup with a lot of swing-and-miss in its game to consistently deliver power when two players representing nearly a quarter of its plate appearances are slugging at such a low rate.
Last offseason was a bust
At least, on the offensive side it was. Other than Hernández and Mike Ford, the Mariners’ lineup didn’t receive much support from its other offseason acquisitions.
It’s worth noting neither La Stella nor Hummel played for Seattle after April, while Wong and Pollock were former Mariners by the MLB trade deadline.
Still, the 404 plate appearances accrued by this foursome accounted for nearly seven-percent of Seattle’s plate confrontations in 2023. Considering just three more wins would’ve netted the Mariners the AL West title, seven-percent matters - at least that’s how I see it.
Spotty offense wasted outstanding pitching
This season, Seattle pitchers allowed one or two runs in 47 games, which translates to 29-percent of the team’s regular season schedule. Only the Dodgers’ staff limited opponents to one or two runs more often - 49 times. This seems pretty good.
But was it, really?
Depends on your perspective, I suppose.
In my mind, Seattle’s uneven run production effort pressurized the pitching staff more than what was necessary.
Look at it this way. The Mariners posted a 37-9 record, while the Dodgers went 45-4. Losing nine games when the pitching staff and defense held the opposition to one or two runs is an inefficiency in need of attention.
To this point, Seattle’s .809 winning percentage in those 47 well-pitched affairs was only seventeenth-best in MLB. Again, three additional wins would’ve likely led to the Mariners earning their first AL West title since 2001.
The Mariners didn’t have enough good hitters
Let’s face it, everything we’ve discussed points us to the obvious. The Mariners simply didn't have enough well-rounded or “good” hitters to overtake their division rivals or ascend towards the upper echelon of MLB teams.
And what’s my definition of a good hitter?
Players capable of reaching base and slugging at an above-average level.
This season, there were 212 batters with at least 400 plate appearances. Exactly half of them had above-average on-base *and* slugging percentages. Three were Mariners: Crawford, Kelenic, and Rodríguez. But as we’ve already noted earlier, Kelenic’s productivity significantly regressed after a torrid March-April.
Now, let’s consider the number of good hitters on the best teams in MLB and the AL West division’s representatives in the postseason. How are the Mariners supposed to compete against this without adding more quality?
Look, even the most productive batters in baseball occasionally slump. But a lineup teeming with good hitters is less likely to crater for an extended period when one player scuffles or ends up on the IL.
No one being honest with themself can say this was the case with the Mariners in 2023. It’s a roster characteristic, which must improve.
Yesterday, Mariners leadership held its end-of-season press conference with local media in attendance, including Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times. To the chagrin of many fans, the team’s management remains steadfastly dedicated to the processes it’s put in place.
So, what does this mean for the upcoming offseason?
It’s hard to tell.
President of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto reiterated champions can be built without acquiring high-profile players. That said, he did leave the door ajar to the notion of adding marquee names when doing so aligns with building a sustainable winner.
“We’ll do the best that we can in trying to achieve the best outcomes. And if that means it’s big-name players via free agency or trade, we’ll do that. If it means we get better in other incremental ways, we’ll try to do that, too. In a perfect world, we’d be able to do both. And yes, we do have the freedom to do that.” - Jerry Dipoto
Perhaps this means a pursuit of the biggest free-agent name available this offseason - Shohei Ohtani. Then again, it’s plausible signing Ohtani or trading for some other big name won’t fit into whatever budgetary boundaries Dipoto and GM Justin Hollander must live within.
Whatever direction the Mariners decide to go in this offseason, the team undoubtedly needs to achieve better outcomes than it did last winter.
After all, Dipoto himself acknowledged the acquisitions of Wong, Pollock and La Stella were failures. That said, the long-time executive certainly wants 2024 to end on a happier note.
So does the entire Mariners fan base.
My Oh My…
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