Our surging Mariners still find themselves eight games below .500 at 51-59, and yet I’m excited. Well, maybe not excited, but encouraged. In fact, you may have noticed that encouraging is the word of the day. Bryant continued with his Tracking Growth series, and while Jesus Montero still hasn’t been what we’re hoping for,  John JasoMichael Saunders, and Kyle Seager are making up for him. Encouraging things ensue…

After 110 games last season, the M’s were 48-62. The three-game difference alone is nothing to write home about—or write you about, I guess—but there are underlying factors that are more encouraging.

The first thing I see is run differential. This time last year, the M’s had scored just 368 runs, and averaged 0.53 runs less than their opponents. Half a run per game might not sound like a lot, but that’s 58 runs less than their opponents; that’s 13.6% less than their opponents; that’s…not encouraging. Here’s what is: this season Seattle has scored just three runs less than its opponents, thanks in large part to a big offensive boost—a big offensive boost despite the current run environment that needs a double dose of Prozac.

One needs to look no further than the three amigos—Saunders, Seager and Jaso—to identify the main source of the offensive boost. Let’s take a look at the improvement chart…

Jaso has been used very intelligently in recent months, being allowed to scorch right-handed pitching and rest against the southpaws. Our very own Harrison wrote about Jaso’s monster bat against righties here. The only thing Jaso is doing less of is hitting the ball to the outfield. No matter. We’ll take ground balls and line drives for hits, as well as some patience for a .391 OBP. Despite serving as a backup catcher/DH, he’s shown he can be very valuable in that role. With arbitration coming up this off-season, and his undervalued skills at getting on base as a platooner intact, Jaso should provide an excellent return on investment, and he could be a great backup at catcher and DH for the righties Montero and (the up-and-coming) Mike Zunino.

Michael Saunders has made similar changes to Jaso in that he’s given up some flyballs for more liners and groundballs. Interestingly, as with Jaso, his ISO power has actually increased (see: green cell). In other words, despite losing the deep flyballs that more often result in doubles and homeruns, Saunders has actually increased his average bases on extra-base hits.  Saunders may simply be better equipped for the power-speed combo he’s shown this season, turning gappers into doubles and triples, and stealing some other “doubles and triples” on the side (15 SB, 3 CS). I was down on Saunders a few short months ago, but his “new” approach looks to be sticking, and it’s working. Good news for everyone: he won’t hit arbitration until 2014, and is likely to cost the M’s just some peanuts and crackerjack next season. A great reason to keep this experiment going in 2013.

Seager continues to chug along. His .312 OBP is exactly the same as last season, and his ISO is not significantly different. But remember, the run environment has been especially harsh for the Mariners this season. So these performances may actually be signs of slight improvement. Either way, he’s young, cheap, and his career road numbers (.354 wOBA) suggest that he has some offensive potential. To put things in perspective, that .354 wOBA on the road puts him in the company of such players as Giancarlo Stanton, Shane Victorino and Paul Konerko. I’m not joking.

Even with the run depression, the pitching hasn’t been better. But getting pitchers to pitch in Safeco will never be hard. Getting hitters will be, and thus having a lot of cost-controlled offensive potential is paramount for building a winning team in Seattle. Saunders, Seager and Jaso have put together seasons that are, in a word, encouraging.

**I highlighted Brendan Ryan‘s stat line above to point out that, due to a high walk rate, Ryan has been about as valuable offensively as in past years. His gold glove defense continues to shine, and the combination of not-actually-thaaaat-bad offense with excellent shortstop defense has him pegged at between 2.1 and 3.5 WAR (Fangraphs vs. Baseball-Reference). He may very well be undervalued in arbitration, especially to arbiters that don’t value defense as highly, and Seattle should get a good deal on him for 2013. Encouraging.