The most amazing part in my mind is not — NOT — that the Seattle Mariners have lost 16 games in a row. Have you seen that lineup? That team could lose ONE HUNDRED games in a row, and it should not be surprising. The Mariners cleanup hitters are slugging .277. Their best every day hitter is hitting .227. Last year, the Mariners were the worst offense in 25 years, and this year the offense in many ways is even worst than that.
The 2011 Mariners are averaging a 10th a run or so more per game — maybe because a higher percentage of the few hits they’re getting are for extra bases. But, as a friend of mine says, distinctions on a certain level are not worth making. The Mariners offense was in full bloom of stinkiosity in 2010. And it’s no better in 2011. The losing streak should be no surprise.
No, the surprise is this: Before the losing streak the Mariners had a .500 record.
Now, seriously, how did that happen? How does a team that ranks last in batting average, last in on-base percentage, last in slugging percentage — and last by a fair amount in each category — how does a team that not only HAS Chone Figgins*, but will regularly hit him second in the lineup, how does a team that has a worse on-base percentage than Aaron Rowand, how does that team win as many games as it loses. What is it about baseball that would allow such a fundamentally broken team to hold its own over 86 games?
*This is a year of atrocious offensive seasons. I’ve written about Adam Dunn’s potentially historic season (he’s hitting .160 at last check) and Alex Rios in his own way might be even worse (his .253 on-base percentage is 35 points lower than Dunn’s). Dan Uggla is still trying to push his average above .200, Juan Uribe is testing Vin Scully’s ability to broadcast outs. Ryan Rayburn has an astonishing 88-13 strikeout-to-walk. And so on.
But nobody is having an offensive year quite like Chone Figgins. It’s amazing: Figgins was a very good player in 2005 and 2007 — he was, all things considered, one one of the best players in the American League in 2009. He got on base (he led the league in walks). He scored runs. He played spectacular defense. When the Mariners signed him to a four-year deal before the 2010 season, that seemed somewhat iffy (it’s always iffy when you sign 32-year-old players to longterm deals), but the Mariners were attacking the game in what felt like a novel way — building around defense and pitching and speed. Figgins seemed like a good fit for this new way of doing things. A lot of people liked the Mariners in 2010. I did. For various reasons, they lost 101 games. Also, Figgins took a dramatic step backward in 2010.
But, for Figgins, that was a Rickey Henderson season compared to this one. This year is so gory that — like with Moneyball** — the Motion Picture Association of America is still trying to determine what rating to give it. He’s hitting 182/.236/.240 on the season. Each of those numbers feels dramatically worse than the last. He seems to have lost all ability to walk. After being one of the best base runners of his generation, he’s actually been a below average base runner this year, according to the Bill James’ stats. It’s all-in-all a disastrous season.
**What’s the hold up on rating Moneyball, by the way? Do we see on-base-percentage in compromising positions? Is it the chair-throwing scene? Does Billy Beane lose it in the middle of the movie and just start shooting scouts?
The Mariners answer seems fairly obvious: Pitching and defense. Those two things seemed to be the idea behind the Mariners plan — great starting pitching, excellent defense and just enough offense to keep the engine going. And, when looking at the breakdown of runs, you would have to say it was kind of working:
Through July 5:
Mariners shut out (6%) : 0-5
Mariners score 1 run (18.5%): 1-15
Mariners score 2 runs (17%): 5-10
Mariners score 3 runs (18.5%): 10-6
Mariners score 4 runs (14%): 8-4
Mariners score 5 runs (8%): 5-2
Mariners score 6 runs (5%): 3-1
Mariners score 7 runs or more (13%): 11-0
All told, the Mariners were 37-13 when scoring three runs or more. Easy math tells you, that’s .740 baseball. Heck when they scored EXACTLY three runs, they were on 100-win pace. Of course, when they scored fewer than three runs — which happened a staggering 36 times — they were 6-30. But even that is better than you might expect.
So in many ways, the Mariners plan WAS working … sort of. I’m sure the Mariners intended to score a few more runs. But they were certainly maximizing their offense. They were winning with pitching and defense. They had a 3.12 ERA as a team, their pitchers were killing it with an almost three-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio, and combined with the defense the Mariners were allowing fewer fewer than 8 hits per nine innings. It was pretty remarkable stuff.
But, is that really sustainable? When you score that few runs, can your pitching and defense really keep you winning for an entire season? Maybe in theory, yes. Maybe even in practice, it can work. In 2011 Mariners reality, you would have to say: No. During the losing streak, the Mariners have been shut out three times, and they have scored just one run four more times. But they have scored three or more runs seven times, and obviously they have lost them all.
I can remember watching the Royals every game during their rather amazing 19-game losing streak of 2005, and what struck me was how those Royals knew that everything had to go exactly right for them to win. There were trap doors everywhere.
That’s how it feels watching this Mariners team now. They know they can’t score runs. So when the Yankees scored two in the first on Monday, they probably knew that game was lost. When the Red Sox scored five in the first on Sunday, they probably knew that game was lost (though they scored a few rather pointless runs at the end of that game). They actually led Saturday’s game 1-0 in the seventh, but I’m not sure how confident they could have felt with 22-year-old Blake Beavan pitching against that Boston lineup. Friday, Felix Hernandez had perhaps his worst outing of the season, so there was no way they could win. Thursday against Toronto, they actually clawed back to tie the game in the seventh but gave it up in the eighth.
And so on. At some point, I suspect, players begin to ask themselves: how is is even POSSIBLE for us to win a game? The Mariners basically have one strategy to win baseball games — score three and give up two. They managed to keep their heads above water through Independence Day doing that, and that was pretty amazing. But let’s be honest: it’s a tough way to make a living.