The Seattle Mariners offense hasn't just been bad the past few years, it has been downright bedraggled. They've put up 128 less runs than the next worst club, the Pirates (just under 0.40 runs/game difference, which is bad), tallied 85 fewer hits than the second worst Padres, and hit just seven more home runs than the bottom dweller in that category, the Astros (don't they play in a homer-friendly stadium?), 210 to 203, since the start of the 2010 baseball season.
They are the only club in baseball with a sub-.300 OBP (.295) or a sub-.360 SLG (.344) and have hit just .234 over nearly 12,000 plate appearances in their last 324 games. They have the sixth worst walk percentage in the game (7.5%) and the fifth worst strikeout percentage (20.6%). The power outage isn't just in the home run category, either. They've hit less doubles (480) than anyone else and only hit more triples (38) than two teams. To try to put it into easier to understand terms, they have been worse as a team in nearly every way than Carl Everett was as the club's DH in 2006 before his July release.
Their BAbip is the second worst in the majors, just .283. Perhaps telling us why that is, they've hit the fifth fewest line drives and the second most infield pop ups. They have been an astounding 100 runs worse hitting the fastball than any other team in baseball, and an almost unbelievable 423 runs worse against the pitch than the league leaders, the Boston Red Sox.
But it isn't out of the question that they will be much better offensively in 2012. In fact, I'd be confident enough to bet the house on it.
First off, a lot of the dead weight that has dragged the offensive numbers down over the last couple of seasons is gone. There is no more Milton Bradley, no Eric Byrnes, no Jack Wilson or Jose Lopez, etc. And the players that remain -- young and old alike -- are extremely likely to dust off poor seasons and rebound near their career norms and/or start to show their true abilities.
Ichiro Suzuki and Franklin Gutierrez both figure to be able to bounce back, at least enough to not be detriments, and Dustin Ackley, Mike Carp, Casper Wells and possibly Kyle Seager are in line for full-time work. Delving in to what hitters struggle where and why, it is worth noting that only seven of the bottom 20 hitters on the club against the fastball remain for 2012, while three of the top five (Smoak, Carp and Seager) figure to see significant playing time.
A little examination of the detailed stats provided by Baseball Reference and Fangraphs shows us that the average American League team scored a run for each 2.67 base runners (hits + walks) in 2011. The Mariners number was one for every 3.05. Certainly their lack of extra base power -- and lack of hitting, period -- has a lot to do with that discrepancy, but assuredly so does luck. Again, the M's .283 BAbip was second worst in the major leagues. The AL hit .259/.338/.405 with runners in scoring position last season. The Mariners? They hit just .222/.306/.325. Their OPS with two outs and RISP was exactly 100 points less than the league average (.702 to .602). Safeco Field is certainly a tough place to hit, yielding just a .653 OPS to the entire league in 2011, but the Mariners managed just a .623 OPS at their home ballpark (which drags that number down considerably for the rest of the participants).
Using the thinking that runners on base = runs (strange concept, I know), I took a look at the players that the Mariners are returning as regulars for 2012 and incorporated their career averages to figure out how many more men on base the M's might expect to get in 2012. Check the chart below, comparing to the output from 2011 from each player's primary position in full:
|PLAYER||POS||CAREER AVG||TIMES ON BASE||DIFFERENCE||Ichiro||RF||.326/.370/.421||271||+48||Wells||LF||.263/.330/.471||191||+28||Seager||3B||.258/.312/.379||184||+27||Gutierrez||CF||.256/.308/.382||177||+20||Carp||DH||.273/.334/.444||192||+17||Ackley||2B||.273/.348/.417||236||+15|
That chart -- which highlights the six defensive positions which have the highest likelihood of getting better offensive production in 2012 -- gives the Mariners 155 more base runners. But wait a minute, you say: taking that 2.67 BR/R formula to heart, that only gives the club 58 more runs scored. And while that is certainly improvement, that barely gets the club over the 600-run hump (614, to be exact).
If the M's can also find a way to get half-way back to the league averages in hitting with RISP (from a team OPS of .631 to a team OPS of .687, which would still rank as 3rd worst in the AL), again using the above formula, that produces in the neighborhood of another 82 runs for the club. We are now at 696 runs scored. The 2011 MLB average was 694 (and the Mariners allowed just 675 last season). Think that is way too optimistic? Fine, dock everyone 20% across the board. That is still a net of 112 more runs than in 2011. Assuming the pitching can perform in a like manner (no easy task, agreed), the Mariners would be operating with a Pythagorean record of 81-81 with that kind of output.
Still think I'm crazy? We haven't even factored in what a healthy Justin Smoak means -- or what many think a healthy Smoak means -- someone having a career year, or the M's having John Jaso, which, of course, equals less Miguel Olivo.
Could they still fail? Sure they could. Carp could turn out to be more Michael Saunders than Raul Ibanez, Smoak may turn out to be nothing more than a .700 OPS bat and Gutierrez and Ichiro could truly be done.
But more likely, the club will experience a nice rebound and the offensive production will slowly creep towards being respectable, possibly even exciting. Seattle is not going to be an offensive powerhouse, even if they do manage to haul in Fielder. But the offense should not be comically bad again in 2012, and if several things break right, they could score 100-plus more runs.
Does that mean I think they can compete for the AL West crown? No, it doesn't. But it does mean that the club is moving in the right direction by shedding their useless players and giving playing time to those that deserve it. And enough talent is starting to show itself at the big league level that the club is becoming more balanced and potent offensively. And, even though it may not seem like it on the surface, that balance could lead to some great things in the not-so-distant future.
And if they get some breaks and their luck evens out, then finally M's fans won't have to watch and complain about the worst offense in the league.