In a strange way, the Seattle Mariners and I have a good reason to empathize with one another.
As a member of the media, it’s hard not to feel attacked by what have become regular declarations of “fake news.” Although this sentiment is expressed more in the political realm than the sports world, there’s been a hint of trickle down — one need only look at the fallout from the deteriorating relationship between Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and the local media as evidence.
But the Mariners find themselves dealing with their own quandary regarding alternative facts. As its 2017 season opens Monday in Houston, Seattle’s fortunes hinge heavily upon whether two key players, ace pitcher Felix Hernandez and new shortstop Jean Segura, had 2016s that were real or fake.
The Mariners are trying to end their 15-year streak of missing the playoffs, and Seattle appears to have the squad to do so. The M’s finished 86-76 last season, remaining in the Wild Card hunt into the final weekend of the regular season. Seattle retained every key player from 2016, then added the likes of Segura and pitcher Drew Smyly, who are expected to have big impacts (though Smyly will start the season on the disabled list, the Mariners will count on him being a key component when he returns).
But in Hernandez and Segura, Seattle has a pair of players whose 2016 performances were drastically outside the range of what they produced in the past, though in opposite ways. Hernandez was significantly worse in 2016 than his typical season, while Segura was significantly better than his norm. So were those changes in direction last year real or fake?
In the case of Hernandez, the Mariners need 2016 to be the falsehood. Hernandez has been one of baseball’s best pitchers for a decade, and he’s now a Seattle legend. But in 2016 the King had career full-season worsts in innings pitched (153.1), strikeout rate (7.2 per nine innings), walk rate (3.8 per nine) and fielding-independent pitching (4.63). For the first time in his career he was below league average in strikeouts per nine and strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.88).
There’s arguments to be made that 2016 was the aberration. Hernandez missed significant time due to injury for the first time in his career, as a strained calf muscle cost him about a quarter of the season. The injury wasn’t arm related, which hopefully means there will be no lingering repercussions. The injury also seemed to spur Hernandez into working out with extra vigor this offseason, with reports that he came to spring training in great shape.
But there’s also reasons to believe it may have been the beginning of his decline phase. Hernandez turns 31 next Saturday, and he has more than 2,400 major-league innings on his arm, so it’s possible time is catching up. Also, last season wasn’t the beginning of Hernandez looking human. His strikeout rate has declined every year since 2013, while his walk rate climbed each season since 2014. And his fastball velocity has steadily deteriorated, topping out at an average of 96.3 mph in 2007 before gradually decreasing to 90.5 last season.
Real news or fake?
For Segura, the Mariners need 2016 to be real. From 2014-15, while playing for the Milwaukee Brewers, Segura was one of the worst offensive regulars in the majors as the combination of a low batting average, no power and no walks resulted in a minuscule .615 OPS. But last season after being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Segura exploded offensively, hitting for both average (.319) and power (68 extra-base hits, including 20 homers).
Like Hernandez, there’s reasons to believe Segura’s 2016 was an outlier. In addition to it being far better than anything he had produced before, he was playing half his games at Chase Field, which is known as one of the best hitter’s parks in the majors. In addition, Segura spent 2016 playing second base, which could be considered a less-taxing defensive position, thus allowing him to put his energies toward hitting. Segura is switching back to shortstop this season with the Mariners.
However, there’s a lot of arrows pointing toward Segura’s improvement being legitimate. First, there’s his age as he was 26 last season, an age at which it’s common for players to take steps forward. There was also talk about how Segura revamped his swing last season in an attempt to hit the ball in the air more often. It worked, as his flyball rate increased from 24.2 percent in 2015 to 27.8 percent in 2016, and the exit velocity off his bat jumped from 87.3 mph to 89.9 mph. Finally, he had to deal with the tragic death of his infant son in July of 2014, something that would have knocked anyone for a loop. His period of mourning may have passed and allowed him to not just return to the level of his solid 2013 season, but surpass it.
Accurate reporting or faulty sources?
Hernandez and Segura aren’t the only variables involved in whether the Mariners end their postseason drought this year. Other factors are equally capable of derailing Seattle’s season. There’s the spectre of age hanging over the head of the middle of the Mariners’ batting order, with Nelson Cruz turning 37 this season and Robinson Cano now 34. How much longer can they sustain their excellence at an advanced age? Then there’s questions about the health of the rotation. Smyly is already hurt, while Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton also have injury histories. And it remains to be seen whether Seattle has adequate support in the bullpen for closer Edwin Diaz.
But even if all those situations break right for the Mariners, it’s unlikely it will be enough to get Seattle back in the playoffs without both Hernandez and Segura landing on the correct side of the real/fake ledger.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.