Here’s the scene: It’s Saturday. The Mariners have just lost three of four to the woeful Blue Jays and Brewers. However, they are feeling optimistic, because not only is Hisashi Iwakuma on the mound, but Ken Griffey Jr. has returned in all his glory to inspire the troops. But all that goes out the window when the Mariners see who’s opposing them on the mound. Journeyman starter Tom Gorzelanny wouldn’t normally strike fear into the hearts of opposing batters, but for the Mariners, he’s the worst kind of pitcher they could possibly imagine. He’s a lefty.
For a team that has improved so much offensively this season, it’s depressing to see Seattle completely incapable of effecitively hitting left-handed pitching. The Mariners are hitting a decent .244 as a team, and that includes .251 against righties. But what brings that number down so far is an abysmal .230 batting average against lefties. The team on-base percentage is .310, but looking at the splits, it’s .319 against righties and .292 against lefties. Slugging percentage is the same: .402 overall, .416 against righties, .372 against lefties.
So what’s the problem? Why do the Mariners make guys like Gorzelanny and Scott Diamond look like legends just because they throw with the hand only 10% of people find dominant?
A big part of it is the Mariners ineffectiveness from the right side of the plate as team. Safeco Field is (or at least was, before the fence move) a lefty-friendly park, and so the Mariners have built their offense around left-handed hitters. Of the seven key core offensive players for the future, only Mike Zunino prefers to bat from the right side. Brad Miller, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders all hit exclusively left-handed, while Justin Smoak and Nick Franklin switch hit but have much better numbers from the left side this season. That reliance greatly diminishes the Mariners lineup flexibility.
The Mariners have not had consistent right-handed hitting all season. Their three best righty hitters, Michael Morse, Franklin Gutierrez and Mike Zunino, have combined to play 113 games. All three have spent at least one significant stint on the disabled list. As a result, the Mariners have had to rely on sub-par right handed hitters behind the plate (Kelly Shoppach, Humberto Quintero, Henry Blanco) and have consistently employed an entirely left-handed hitting outfield (Saunders, Ackley, Raul Ibanez, Endy Chavez).
This lineup imbalance is killer every time an opponent pencils in a lefty to start against Seattle. Here are the lines of recent left-handed starters against the M’s. With the exception of J.A. Happ, who was making his first start since May after getting beaned in the head with a line drive, the numbers are frightening.
Aug 10: Tom Gorzelanny – 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R/ER, 2 BB, 7 K
Aug 7: J.A. Happ – 4 IP, 7 H, 7 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 2 K
Aug 4: Wei-Yin Chen – 7 IP, 5 H, 3 R/ER, 3 BB, 5 K
July 26: Scott Diamond – 6.2 IP, 5 H, 1 R/ER, 1 BB, 1K
July 24: Scott Kazmir – 8 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 7K
July 20: Eric Bedard – 6.1 IP, 0 H, 3 R, 1 ER, 5 BB, 10 K
These aren’t generally very feared pitchers, yet the Mariners cannot seem to solve them. One hit against Scott Kazmir in eight innings? Kazmir was pitching for that team Roger Clemens made a comeback for at this time last year. Eric Bedard? Scott Diamond? The list of journeymen the Mariners have turned into studs goes on and on.
All this boils down to Seattle needing to target an effective right-handed hitter in free agency or via trade this offseason. Morse should not be retained, but the Mariners could try and pull off a similar maneuver to acquire the bat or bats they need from the right side. If they could supplement Zunino and a healthy Gutierrez (knock on a giant piece of wood) with two solid OBP guys from the right side, this could be one of the best young lineups in baseball in 2014.