Seattle Mariners pitching could be better than we thought

PEORIA, AZ - FEBRUARY 23: Yusei Kikuchi of the Seattle Mariners pitches during spring training game against the Texas Rangers on February 23, 2020 in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images)
PEORIA, AZ - FEBRUARY 23: Yusei Kikuchi of the Seattle Mariners pitches during spring training game against the Texas Rangers on February 23, 2020 in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images) /

There is no grander tradition than to overreact to pointless spring training statistics and drawing conclusions. But forget the numbers, could the Mariners pitching actually be… good?

The Seattle Mariners only have one expectation for their 2020 season: to let the young kids play. 2020 is not about wins or losses, it is about development. But while I applaud their honesty, Seattle is projected by most to lose between 95-100 games and that makes for a rough season for most fans.

But here is the thing about projections: they mean almost nothing. They are based on regression and past performance. But sometimes projections are limited by their very nature. Take Yusei Kikuchi, who has all of 161 big league innings in which to build a projection.

Using his 2019 as a baseline and building in some positive regression gets you a slightly better pitcher in 2020, but what if Kikuchi does more than that? What if, in his second year, Kikuchi becomes the #3 starter most thought he would be. All of a sudden, the projected 0.5 fWAR turns in 2.5 fWAR.

In the Mariners starting rotation, the only pitcher to post a truly good year in the past 2 seasons (at the major league level) is Marco Gonzales. This leaves the other 4 projected arms of Kikuchi, Kendall Graveman, Justus Sheffield, and Taijuan Walker as major question marks, and as such, their value is tough to predict.

So, is it possible that the Mariners starting rotation could be a lot better than people are giving it credit for? Jerry Dipoto thinks so:

"“I think by and large the takeaway as we head into our off day is that our starting pitching is maybe a little better than it is given credit for being. You are going to have some hiccup days in Arizona, but from the very beginning I think the starting pitching has been solid.”"

And for the most part, it has. Gonzales had a rough first outing, but bounced back beautifully in his next outing and is as safe of a bet as you can make in this rotation.

Kendall Graveman has looked like the pitcher he was prior to his Tommy John Surgery, even adding a touch more velocity. When he was healthy, Graveman was a solid #4 type of arm, somewhat similar to Mike Leake.

Taijuan Walker has yet to appear in a Cactus League game, but recently went a couple of innings in an intrasquad B game and reportedly hit 94 MPH with a good curveball. In Walker’s last healthy season, he was worth 2.5 fWAR.

Justus Sheffield and Yusei Kikuchi are the wildcards. Kikuchi has excited fans and the team alike by simplifying his delivery and touching 96 MPH in his first start. The slider looks sharper and the changeup is being used more. If he can carry the stuff into the regular season and improve his command, he could be a 3 win starter in 2020.

Sheffield flashed in his first semi-extended look in the big leagues. He posted more than a strikeout per inning and produced a better than 50% groundball rate, a rare feat. He will need to show he can carry that over the course of 150+ innings in 2020, but the slider already looks to be in mid-season form. If both he and Kikuchi show average command, they could combine to produce a 5 fWAR, which is significant.

Overall, the Mariners starting rotation as it stands right now is questionable, to say the least. But based on what we have seen thus far, there is an obvious upside in these arms, with guys like Justin Dunn and Logan Gilbert on the way. That, combined with vastly improved defense from a year ago, and scoring runs on the Mariners may be harder than the projections and prognosticators think.

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Even if Seattle’s rotation is better than expected, fans shouldn’t expect to win 80+ games. The team is still young, with a questionable bullpen and some obvious injury risk to watch. But the rotation is as good as Dipoto hopes, Seattle should be a fun team to watch all season long.