They arrive like the unwanted 11th player to a pickup game: Hair unkempt, ill-fitting shorts, unfashionable headband, not necessarily knowing how they got there.
Alas, the Seattle Mariners have crashed the American League wild-card run, and as the game winds down – no need to win by two – they’ve refused to leave the court.
So, might as well get to know these intruders.
Just a half-game behind the Boston Red Sox for the AL’s second wild card spot entering Thursday, the Mariners, at 89-70, are the closest they’ve been to the postseason in the 20 years since they last appeared – the longest drought in Major League Baseball. Here’s how they got there and why they are the oddest group in this struggle:
It is somewhat ironic that virtually any metric suggests the Mariners have no business being in this playoff race. After all, the Mariners have gained a reputation as one of the most coldly calculating franchises in the game. Their year got off to an infamous start when club president Kevin Mather told a local Rotary Club that the team intended to suppress the service time of its top prospects, viewed the final year of respected veteran Kyle Seager’s contract as a significant albatross and provided several more indirect disses of the club.
General manager Jerry Dipoto never met a player he wouldn’t trade, for even the most incremental gain, though a few of his deserted assets (Freddy Peralta, Mike Zunino, Chris Taylor) blossomed into All-Stars elsewhere. And Dipoto inspired a near-mutiny in the clubhouse when he dealt closer Kendall Graveman to Houston at the trade deadline, ostensibly imperiling their surprise run into contention.
But Dipoto pivoted for a relief replacement (the Rays’ Diego Castillo) and cooler heads prevailed. While Mather resigned after his troublesome comments, Dipoto ultimately received a three-year contract extension and promotion to president of baseball operations as the Mariners kept on winning.
Even when all the metrics suggested they shouldn’t.
Opponents have outscored the Mariners 735-687, and their minus-48 run differential gives them an “expected record” of 75-84. They are next-to-last in the AL in team OPS (.688), 11th in runs scored and have been no-hit twice. Their 4.30 ERA ranks ninth in the AL and they are 12th in strikeouts per nine innings (8.28), putting tons of pressure on a fortunately solid defense headed by shortstop J.P. Crawford, who’s having a Gold Glove-caliber year.
But the numbers don’t lie. So enter “fun differential.”
That’s a phrase manager Scott Servais coined back in August to explain away his team punching way above its weight. No one’s sure exactly what the Mariners have going on behind closed doors, but there could be no better metric for this team.
It is, after all, immeasurable.
The Mariners last had a winning record in 2018, when they won 89 games. That was also the season Mitch Haniger was an All-Star and finished 11th in MVP voting, before a series of unfortunate events limited him to 63 games in 2019 and none in 2020.
It’s surely no coincidence the Mariners’ resurgence is tied to Haniger’s.
Haniger has blasted a career-best 38 home runs, many of the highly timely variety that can make the difference for a team as, uh, algorithmically-challenged as the Mariners. He has four multi-homer games and leads the major leagues with 43 RBI in the seventh inning or later.
It is a wonderful comeback story and also could serve as a coda of sorts for his time in Seattle. Last year’s Rookie of the Year, Kyle Lewis, and top prospects Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez are poised to hold down the outfield for the next several years, and Dipoto’s trigger finger is never not itchy.
With Haniger eligible for free agency after 2022, he’s likely on the back end of his Mariners stint. A taste of playoff baseball would be a just reward.
Like Haniger, 2020 was utterly forgettable for Paul Sewald. Occasionally overpowering but often erratic with the New York Mets, he bounced between the big club and the alternate training site last year before the club non-tendered him.
He has been an entirely different pitcher in Seattle.
Sewald, 31, is punching out 14 batters per nine innings and carrying a 1.01 WHIP through 62 very high leverage innings for the Mariners. His left-on-base percentage is 83%, ranking 17th in baseball and not far behind closer Drew Steckenrider (86%), who ranks ninth. (Did we mention that this team can walk a tightrope?
Meanwhile, set-up man Casey Sadler has not given up a run in two months, pitching 25 scoreless innings since July 27.
Relievers are volatile; there’s little guarantee this group will repeat their feats in 2022. But this convergence of career years has enabled the Mariners to work significant late-inning magic.
Seattle’s last playoff team, the 116-win 2001 squad, won 93 games each of the following seasons before the franchise spiraled into a cycle of seven last-place finishes in nine years. Only in 2014, 2016 and 2018 did they even generate lukewarm playoff hopes. The 2014 team was tied for a wild-card berth after 153 games, but lost five in a row and the ’16 and ’18 teams were, like this one, outmatched on paper.
But with four games remaining, there has been no September fade for these Mariners. What’s more, they will finish with an Angels team that’s below .500 and likely to bubble wrap Shohei Ohtani’s right arm this weekend.
Surely, TV and league executives are salivating over a Red Sox-Yankees wild card game, which would yield a ratings bonanza and guarantee one of those popular teams would continue deeper into October. But with no more than a game to make up entering the weekend, the Mariners could spoil that scenario.
They’ve proven difficult to eradicate, even if the numbers say they should be long gone.