The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Mariners’ Lineup Bringing Real Concerns to Second Half

BALTIMORE, MD - JUNE 28: Jean Segura #2 and Dee Gordon #9 of the Seattle Mariners celebrate a win after a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden yards on June 28, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - JUNE 28: Jean Segura #2 and Dee Gordon #9 of the Seattle Mariners celebrate a win after a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden yards on June 28, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

Any way you slice it, the 2018 Mariners are a successful ball club as the first half begins its final weekend before the All-Star Break. Sitting at 58-35 must feel like a dream after tepid pre-season projections had them on their way to about a .500 record. Now, with Oakland hot on their tails in the Wild Card race, the Mariners must turn their focus away from what has gone right and toward what must go better.

Coming into this year, the Mariners’ lineup was something to envy.

Dee Gordon and Jean Segura were supposed to be dynamic up top, constantly putting early pressure on pitchers. Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz were veteran stalwarts with elite talent. The ever-consistent Kyle Seager was expected to be a key lineup cog despite a bit of a down year in 2017.

Mitch Haniger was looking to build off his breakout half-season. And other flaws aside, trade acquisition Ryon Healy brought 25-HR upside to the bottom half of a lineup that featured an additional power threat in Mike Zunino. Plus a possible platoon between potential hit machine Ben Gamel and OBP wizard Guillermo Heredia.

But not everything has gone right.

None of Gordon, Seager, or Healy can seem to stay in a groove. Zunino could find his power stroke and nothing else before he hit the DL. And Cano, of course, has been suspended for most of the season.

In this sense, despite helping vie for 60+ pre-All-Star-Break wins, the Mariners’ lineup is not firing on all cylinders.But it could come back stronger in the second half with greater contributions from a few key players, including Robinson Cano.

The Good:

Anchoring the Mariners’ lineup in the absence of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz is again terrifying the league in yet another age-defying season. His 148 wRC+ and 22 home runs in his age-38 season lead the team by a good margin, and that’s really all that is necessary to say.

Hardly being outdone, though, is breakout star Mitch Haniger.

Not only has Haniger continued to hit well but he has built on last season by taking more walks this year. That may be a product of pitchers showing him some respect by tip-toeing around the zone, but the end result is still all on Mitch Haniger for doing Mitch Haniger things. His 18 home runs have already surpassed last year’s total in fewer plate appearances and he is on his way to sneakily grab some back-ballot MVP votes — that is unless Jean Segura steals them away.

Truly the Mariners’ catalyst, Segura has set up the middle of the order all year long. He’s 2nd in the league in hits with 117, 4th in batting average among qualifiers at .329, and his 130 wRC+ is 4th among shortstops — ahead of the likes of Carlos Correa and Andrelton Simmons.

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Together, Cruz, Haniger, and Segura (and Cano) have driven the majority of the Mariners offense this year, but the rest of the lineup does deserve some credit as well.

From the bottom half, there’s an occasional power show from Healy and Zunino, Guillermo Heredia walks enough to turn the lineup over decently, and the G-Span tandem of Ben Gamel and Denard Span has been on fire since the late-May trade that brought Span into the fold.

Since being acquired, Span has done nothing but hit, hit, hit, and hit some more. In 120 PA following the trade, he has slashed .300/.342/.482 (127 wRC+) for the Mariners, pushing an equally hot Ben Gamel for playing time.

Now, Gamel is currently mired in a 0-16 skid, but an enormous hot streak has his season-to-date wRC+ at a still respectable 105. Considering what appears to be a real improvement against fastballs, he could be a useful bat-first part-timer or better, and his current .273/.347/.375 line overall might make for a reasonable expectation for him going forward.

As it stands, this collection of players gives the Mariners’ lineup a nice floor to work up from. The eventual return of Robinson Cano should also provide for some fireworks late in the season and help the Mariners into the playoffs; however, a few, possibly wildly variable players can still sink the bottom line and make that an uphill battle.

The Bad:

Though he was very consistent to start his career, Kyle Seager has lost himself in 2018. The power is still evident but the consistency in everything else offensively is not, as he’s slashing .236/.286/.433 (98 wRC+) on the season.

I have written about some changes in his mechanics that could be driving his struggles, yet there is likely a multitude of things holding him back this year, including plenty of shifts. For what it’s worth, though, since my writing about him, Seager has hit .292/.350/.528 (142 wRC+) over 80 PA. I am unsure if he has changed his approach or swing or has just finally hit an inevitable hot streak, but I want to buy in. A Seager revival would be an absolute boon for this lineup. For now, though, his season-long struggles and the uncertainty about his bat going forward put him squarely in “The Bad.”

Similarly, Ryon Healy has had his share of hot and cold streaks this year. Although he doesn’t come with the same track record as Seager, his ups and downs have also been frustrating.

My previous post mulled over Healy’s streaks, believing them to be more discouraging than promising, but I am not quick to brush off his talent. He has the potential to hit .270 with 25+ homers a year. It doesn’t take too much more to be an above-average hitting first baseman, but it becomes a loftier accomplishment with a below average BABIP and without a solid base of walks to build on.

Speaking of a lack of walks, Dee Gordon and his .303 OBP have also been somewhat of a disappointment this year.

Since his incredibly hot first month+, Dee has cooled off considerably (though a fractured toe may have held him back for even longer than his DL stint). And while he has been hitting better recently, he hasn’t quite gotten hot again, hitting .367, .259, .219, .350, and .250 in the weeks since June 11th. His inability to consistently reach base by any means makes his stronghold on the leadoff spot questionable despite his solid production when actually leading off the game, as he arguably is given too many opportunities to make outs in front of Jean Segura.

At the other end of the lineup, Mike Zunino was struggling at the plate before getting hurt. I previously detailed some hope for his resurgence when he returns, but the fact of the matter is the Mariners might not lose much offense moving from Mike’s 80 wRC+ to a lower-ceiling duo of Chris Herrmann and David Freitas. That’s just a positive way to look at a rough situation offensively.

Moving toward the bigger picture, we find that the team as a whole has been the most clutch in baseball by a wide margin. Recently, Jeff Sullivan pondered the Mariners’ quest to be the “clutchiest team on record.” While it was an insightful read, his use of “clutchiest” in the title over “clutchest” or just “most clutch” haunts me more than a week later.

Anyway, being clutch is not really a skill. It’s certainly not a bad title to own. But previous clutch performance is not suggestive of future clutch performance by itself. Over a large sample size, you tend to find that most clutch hitters are just fantastically skilled hitters in the first place.

The Mariners have guys with that kind of ability. Yet we can’t expect the constant come-from-behind wins to continue at their current pace. They might. But the Mariners might also start dropping those games too. Down the stretch, it will just become more imperative to avoid entwining crucial games and stress for the sake of a pitching staff that will end up pushing some of its limits.

Seattle Mariners
Seattle Mariners /

Seattle Mariners

Ultimately, more so than possible regression in clutch situations, due to the personal struggles of Seager and Zunino and the dubious level of offensive talent that Healy and Gordon bring to the table, the Mariners’ lineup is just not truly a standout group without Robinson Cano.

The Ugly:

Any team with 58 wins before the All-Star Break likely is getting more than “just enough” to win most nights, but having won 26 one-run games already, the Mariners are writing a different story.

As a team, they have a 106 wRC+ for the season that ranks 9th by team among non-pitchers, but they are just 21st in runs per game and 25th in runs per home game.

Sure, there is something to be said about playing half your games in a pitchers’ park like Safeco —  our “friends” over in Oakland similarly have trouble scoring at home — and the Mariners have scored the 9th most runs per game on the road, but there is a real impedance up and down most of the lineup that has become more obvious without Cano.

The Mariners’ relative inability to get on base is hindering their ability to consistently score runs.

Currently, the Mariners rank just 19th in OBP and are 20th* since Cano was injured then suspended. And since Cano’s last game on May 13th, the Mariners rank 12th in batting average, 17th in SLG, 13th in home runs, 16th in stolen bases, and are tied for 14th in wRC+ at an even 100*.

That certainly does not bode well.

With few walks and without Cano, the Mariners’ lineup is significantly less imposing and might teeter on being average.

Among active Mariners with at least 100 PA, only Haniger, Cruz, Heredia, and Gamel have a league average or better walk rate. Segura and Span are the only below-average walkers hitting well enough to have good OBPs.

That leaves 4 regular starters (Gordon, Seager, Healy, and Zunino) making an out in 70+% of their total plate appearances.

Unless these guys optimally put the bat on the ball, which has decidedly not been the case often this year, the Mariners’ best bats are typically left on base and with fewer opportunities to knock in runs.

On top of this, not even the speedy Dee Gordon can save the Mariners from being a poor baserunning team.

SEATTLE, WA – JUNE 30: Denard Span #4 (L) and Dee Gordon #9 of the Seattle Mariners celebrate their 6-4 win against the Kansas City Royals during their game at Safeco Field on June 30, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA – JUNE 30: Denard Span #4 (L) and Dee Gordon #9 of the Seattle Mariners celebrate their 6-4 win against the Kansas City Royals during their game at Safeco Field on June 30, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

Per FanGraphs, the Mariners have been worth roughly -0.5 wins on the bases (-4.9 BsR as a team). Overall, that is 24th in the league, and they are a horrible 22-38 on stolen base attempts since Cano left.

A dearth of walks and a wealth of poor baserunning and double plays hit into have only widened the gap between what we’ve expected from these bats and what we’ve actually gotten. And these aren’t trends that reverse on a dime either. Dee won’t suddenly take a bunch of walks; Nelly won’t suddenly run the bases well; Healy won’t suddenly avoid hitting into double plays.

From somewhere else, the Mariners need more.

Realistically, it can’t come from Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura, or Nelson Cruz. Denard Span and Ben Gamel are basically already doing their utmost at the plate. Dee Gordon and Guillermo Heredia have room to improve but offer limited offensive upside overall.

It seems that any substantial offensive improvement may boil down to Kyle Seager and/or Mike Zunino returning to form. Or Ryon Healy staying hot much longer than he stays cold. Or perhaps Jerry Dipoto finding space to bring in another bat.

The likelihood of each reality is not too inspiring particularly with Zunino out of game action for a few weeks. But by playing well on both sides of the ball, the Mariners have already shown they can win on about 4 runs per game.

They have gone 17-11 in the month since June 11th while doing exactly that — scoring 4.11 runs per game. And at home, they are 31-17 despite scoring just 3.85 runs per game. But as fun as the ride has been, that kind of performance puts a lot of pressure on a pitching staff that has some weak lines and questions about workloads.

The tightrope act that has defined the Mariners exciting but stressful first-half has afforded them a good cushion in the playoff race. Even as Oakland rattled off 18 wins in their last 23 games, the Mariners maintained a solid 6-game lead for the second Wild Card spot heading toward the last weekend before the All-Star Break. But a 6-game lead sounds bigger than it really is, especially with 10 head-to-head matchups left against Oakland. And with the Rays and Angels possibly still dark horse contenders as well despite less favorable trajectories, it might take all hands on deck to hold that lead.

Next: Mariners Trade Deadline Plan: 5 Trades To End the Drought

All stats referenced prior to games on 07/12/18

*not counting pitchers batting except possibly as pinch hitters 

Another interesting tidbit: Andrew Romine hasn’t been very good 🙁