If the major league playoffs started today, the AL West would be represented quite well.
At the top of the division sit the Oakland A’s, who are presently the class of the baseball universe. Not only do they possess MLB’s best winning percentage at .620 (that’s a 49-30 record), they also have the best cumulative run differential, +133, a product of both their MLB-best offense (407 runs scored) and MLB-best pitching (tied with the St. Louis Cardinals at 274 runs allowed).
But the A’s are hardly primed to run away with the division. The American League’s other two current Wild Card leaders are just 4.5 and 6.5 games behind the A’s in the standings, respectively: the Los Angeles Angels and the Seattle Mariners. The Angels and the Mariners have earned cumulative run differentials of +48 and +52, meaning that the three best run differentials in all of the major leagues can be found in the AL West. It’s a gauntlet of a division.
With their imposing budget and a roster led by the game’s best player, Mike Trout, it’s not totally surprising to see the Angels in serious contention. Their uninspiring 78-84 season in 2013 felt like the worst-case scenario for a team so clearly stacked with talent. Buoyed by a return to full health by Albert Pujols and a return to form by Josh Hamilton, nobody would be surprised to see this team earn a Wild Card spot.
What is surprising is that the Seattle Mariners have managed to keep pace with both of these teams. The Mariners’ last winning season was all the way back in 2009, with their recent losing years punctuated with the underwhelming big-league performance of once-heralded prospects like Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, and Jesus Montero.
At a time not too long ago, the Mariners were praised for initiating a new and supposedly progressive wave of defensive-minded analytics. While preseason speculation saw things looking rosy for the Mariners and their rumored elite gloves, no level of defensive prowess could overcome the team’s anemic offensive attack. The team’s sublime ace, Felix Hernandez, seemed to constantly be on the losing end of 2-1 or 1-0 contests.
Hope for the future dwindled even further this winter when Seattle Times journalist Geoff Baker filed a truly scathing report on the dysfunction and disunity within the Mariners’ front office. The article featured numerous sources who were willing to step out in front of the curtain of anonymity and blast General Manager Jeff Zduriencik for establishing a contentious working environment, and for preaching the use of advanced analytics without actually knowing how to implement them. When the Mariners signed free agent Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240M deal five days after the article’s publication, it was depressingly easy to view the signing as the team making a quick-trigger decision to wash over all the bad press.
Smart money would have bet that the Mariners would trudge through another 70-win season in 2014, only this time devoting a seriously large chunk of their payroll to Cano. So what are the factors that have allowed the Mariners to be successful this year?
1. A Pair Of Aces
Hernandez has been on track for a Hall of Fame career ever since his debut as a 19-year-old in 2005. Only CC Sabathia has struck out more batters since that time, and only Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Justin Verlander have provided more total value over the same span. Just before Spring Training in 2013, the Mariners signed Hernandez to a 7-year/$175M extension, and so far it has in fact been a cost-effective move: no pitcher has provided the value that Felix has since his extension was signed.
The difference now is that Hernandez has another pitcher in the rotation who would be talented enough to be the featured ace for most teams: the cerebral, Japanese-born Hisashi Iwakuma. Since being signed by the Mariners in 2012, Iwakuma has the league’s third-lowest ERA among starters, a result of his tendency to produce a game-long string of weak ground balls. Despite being the second-best pitcher on his own team, Iwakuma is nonetheless one of the elite pitchers in the game.
The Mariners paid Iwakuma $6.5M in 2013, when he finished third in Cy Young Voting, and pay him $6.5M again this year before a team option for $7M in 2015, a total no-brainer for the Mariners to exercise. Not only is Iwakuma one of the league’s best pitchers, he comes with one of the league’s most team-friendly contracts.
2. Organizational Depth
Mariner fans have long been forced to impatiently twiddle their thumbs as they wait (and wait, and wait) for the development of top prospects like Ackley and Montero. While Ackley has shown a willingness to adapt, transitioning from second base to left field, his bat remains somewhere around replacement-level, with a prolonged slump sending him to Triple-A for a month last season. It’s not a great look for the player who was picked second overall, right behind Stephen Strasburg, in the 2009 draft.
What’s happening in 2014 is that the Mariners are receiving crucial big-league contributions from players who earned considerably less buzz during their ascension through the minors. Third basemen Kyle Seager, a third-round pick in 2009, has been the team’s most valuable offensive player, hitting for legitimate power that one wouldn’t necessarily expect from his small frame. Since getting called up in April, 25-year-old center fielder James Jones has been an immediate every-day player, using his blistering speed to notch three triples and fourteen stolen bases, up against one caught-stealing. Despite an underwhelming bat, shortstop Brad Miller (hitting .210 this year) actually does provide enough value with his glove to be a positive daily contributor.
The Mariners have quietly nailed their mid-round picks for years, and it’s starting to pay dividends, equipping the team with an inexpensive young core.
3. Robinson Cano Is A Model Of Consistency
It’s easy to look at Cano’s low HR and RBI totals (4, 43) — both of which are on pace to be career-lows — and conclude that he is already starting, as a 31-year-old, a long, age-derived decline. In truth, Cano is the Mariners’ best and most consistent offensive contributor: currently batting at .320, he is on pace for his sixth consecutive season batting .300 or above, and his eighth .300+ season in ten Major League years. Although he is hitting for less power than at any other point in his career, Cano’s flurry of singles does add up to considerable value. FanGraphs estimates that, nearly halfway through the season now, the value that Cano has provided to the Mariners would be worth $10.4M on the free agent market, a number that should eventually match Cano’s $24M salary over a full season — especially if he manages to hit a few more home runs.
For the first time since Ichiro Suzuki made his way across the Pacific, the future in Seattle is quite bright.