It feels like it’s been feast or famine for the Seattle Mariners so far.
Allow 10 runs to the Chicago White Sox one game. Shut them out the next.
Score 10 runs against the Oakland Athletics one game. Score one run the next.
Lose 10-0 to the Kansas City Royals one game. Win 8-3 the next.
Why so helter-skelter?
At least part of that has been the inconsistency of the Mariners’ starting pitching, which by many metrics has been well below average compared to the rest of baseball through Seattle’s first 22 games of the season.
And after being pelted with questions this offseason about their starting rotation, the Mariners so far haven’t done much to dispel those, though it hasn’t been all bad – certainly the past two outings from left-hander Marco Gonzales were encouraging.
But their starters aren’t out there very long. The Mariners have averaged 5.1 innings per outing, which is the sixth-lowest in the major leagues (the Los Angeles Angels have the lowest at 4.8 innings, while the Cleveland Indians get 6.5 innings per start).
Scott Servais knows.
“We need to get more,” the Mariners’ manager told reporters Tuesday. “We’re not the only team in the league. There are a couple of teams struggling like we are. But it just puts a toll on your bullpen.”
With Felix Hernandez starting Wednesday against the White Sox, this will be the Mariners’ sixth turn through the rotation.
“We all like how our offense is put together,” Servais said. “I feel good we are going to score runs pretty consistently. But starting pitching is going to be key for us if we’re going to put streaks together.”
The Mariners also have one of the youngest rotations in baseball, with only the Angels having a younger staff in the American League West.
And the Mariners knew this was going to be a challenge, which was why they signed reliever Juan Nicasio this offseason. Nicasio was tied for the National League lead in appearances last season.
They also committed to an eight-man bullpen – so when things do go south, they can stretch the game out with relievers.
But even Servais said he was surprised at this — that the Mariners have gone 22 games into the season and only one pitcher has lasted at least seven innings in an outing, which was when Mike Leake allowed two runs in seven innings in a 5-4 Mariners win over the Indians in the third game of the season.
Meanwhile, all of their starters except for Ariel Miranda have had at least one start of not making it through at least five innings. Miranda’s one start lasted exactly five innings.
Just this week the Mariners went three consecutive games with James Paxton pitching four innings, Erasmo Ramirez lasting 4 2⁄3 and Leake pitching 31⁄3.
“Mike Leake had been so consistent for us,” Servais said. “(Monday) was really the toughest one he’s had. Pax really hasn’t got on a roll yet. We’ve seen glimpses of Felix get going for two or three innings pretty good, but then you look up in the sixth and there’s a walk or a hit batter and he’s giving the signs that he’s starting to tire.
“We’re not there now. I’m very bullish on our guys, but it’s something we need to get over the hump with.”
Some of this might just be bad luck.
Servais pointed out their batting average with balls in play, which entering Wednesday was the fourth-highest in the major leagues at .319.
So that probably stands to level out at some point in the Mariners’ favor, but it could also be attributed to improper defensive alignments. Only the Orioles, Padres and Rangers had higher averages on balls in play than the Mariners.
But the Mariners were also averaging the third-highest home run rate in baseball at 1.4 per nine innings, just behind the Angels and Reds. So there’s not much the defense can do when teams are hitting it over the fences as often as they have against the Mariners.
And one more stat: Only the White Sox’s starting rotation has a higher earned-run average than the Mariners’ starters (5.46).
So Servais and Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto have stressed a bit of a philosophical shift in how their starters operate.
If most of the time you’re not pitching into the eighth inning, anyway, then don’t save pitches.
The old-school philosophy is if a pitcher can get by with throwing fastballs in the first inning, do that. Don’t unveil other pitches until later in the game.
But the Mariners have been stressing the opposite — don’t leave any tricks in the bag.
“The Astros do it as well as anybody,” Dipoto said on one of his recent podcasts. “You see (Lance) McCullers throwing 70 percent curveball because we can’t hit his curveball. We’ve proven it. To take that out as a game plan is a really smart move.
“Similarly with our pitchers. They don’t and they shouldn’t keep anything in the bag. That’s something we’re trying with on a couple of guys who might still be wired to keep some things in the bag. I think the game has shown us more often than not they are not going to be out in the seventh or eighth inning anyway.”
Servais said that’s a point stressed especially to Hernandez and Gonzales, especially, lately.
“Really all of our guys, though,” Servais said. “That first inning, go out with all three or four of your pitches and let them go.
“I think the old-school mentality is we don’t want to show them everything. See if you can get through the lineup the first time with your fastball. We just want to get through the lineup the first time — and give our offense a chance to get going.
“So when you leave the bullpen, hopefully you’ve got a feel for at least two or three of your pitches and use them all. Right from the get-go, establish them all.”