Defense, baserunning woes major factor in M’s mediocrity

Injuries to the starting rotation were only part of why the playoff drought reached a 16th season.

By Bob Dutton

The News Tribune

OAKLAND, Calif. — With the math firmly in place, and the Mariners ensured of extending their postseason drought to an MLB-worst 16 seasons, the season’s final week marks a shift within the organization to determine what went wrong.

The early public statements from manager Scott Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto suggest the Mariners won’t simply point to the chaos created by a injury-depleted rotation as the sole reason for their underachieving season.

“You’ve got to execute and make the plays.” Servais said Saturday after the Mariners made five errors in an 11-4 loss to Cleveland. That’s what it takes to get into October. Throughout the season, we have not done that. That’s why we’re in the situation we’re in. We’ve got to get better. We know that.”

The impact of injuries to the pitching staff is undeniable. The Mariners, if current plans hold, will get only 69 starts from their projected five-man rotation. They’ve tied an MLB record by using 40 pitches and tied a club record by using 17 starters.

Nonetheless, defensive breakdowns and baserunning lapses reached unacceptable levels and torpedoed any chance offered by a weak wild-card field for the Mariners, even with their patchwork rotation, to reach postseason.

September offered an opportunity but, as Dipoto noted, “we decided we didn’t want to walk through” the door.

There are many ways to measure defensive efficiency. All are flawed, but virtually all are unkind to the Mariners.

Entering the season’s final week, they ranked 12th among the 15 American League clubs in fielding percentage. They were ninth in total zone rating, which seeks to measure whether a player makes the plays he should make.

The Mariners also ranked eighth — dead in the middle — in runs saved above average.

Servais makes a key point, though, in saying the Mariners’ defense needs to be above average because, “We don’t have the type of pitching that’s going to strike 10-to-12 guys out every night. You’ve got to catch the baseball.”

If the defense has been average, the Mariners’ baserunning has been atrocious.

The latest example came Sunday when Kyle Seager got doubled off first base on a fly to left field, which killed a promising threat in what became a 4-2 loss to the Indians in the season’s final game at Safeco Field.

The Mariners, through Sunday, have run into 55 outs on the bases. While four other AL clubs are worse, that’s somewhat misleading. Those four clubs — Houston, New York, Boston and Texas — have also “taken” more bases.

The truer measure of the Mariners’ baserunning inefficiency is their BsR rating, which is an all-encompassing baserunning metric developed by Fangraphs.com and readily available on its website.

The Mariners rank 12th among AL clubs in BsR with an assessment that they’ve given up 12.4 runs this season on the bases.

Even that is deceiving because outfielders Jarrod Dyson (plus 5.6) and Ben Gamel (plus 3.1) skew the figures. The rest of the club is a combined minus-21.1 runs on the bases.

“I’ve learned that we are largely inconsistent in our approach to the game,” Dipoto said in a recent interview on 710 AM. “I think a re-focus on fundamental baseball is important for us. It’s the small things you do during the course of a game that over 162 games start to add up to big things. We just haven’t done them very well this year.”

When Dipoto (or any club official anywhere) cites a need to “re-focus on fundamental baseball,” what he’s effectively saying is,”We do too many stupid things.”

Engineering such a baserunning and defensive fix will be interesting because, after two years of extensive changes, the Mariners’ non-pitching roster appears reasonably set going into next year.

They will need a first baseman because Yonder Alonso and Danny Valencia are each pending free agents. Backup catcher Carlos Ruiz is also a pending free agent.

Any or all three are candidates to return on a new deal, although the Mariners are likely to give a hard look at possible alternatives available through a trade or free agency.

Dyson is also a pending free agent but falls into a different category precisely because he excels at baserunning (as noted above) and defense.

Despite missing the season’s last six weeks because of a sports hernia, Dyson still leads the Mariners and ranks seventh among AL players with a 1.7 defensive WAR (wins above replacement) rating.

If the Mariners don’t retain Dyson, they need someone much like him.

“Some of (the problem) was just the lack of attention to detail on all of our parts,” Dipoto said. “We’re going to have to…figure out how to solve that problem headed into next year. But I’m very confident in the talent level that we have on the team, (that) at least (we have) the foundation to build with.”

If the Mariners don’t dramatically change their personnel, that means improvement must come from within, which likely means a change in instruction and/or the instructors, i.e., the coaching staff.

“It’s starts with me,” Servais acknowledged, “then the coaching staff and down through the players…Every out is so crucial in this game.”

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