For the past two seasons, the Mariners’ offense has been largely middling, posting below-average weighted runs created plus in each of 2020 (91, 21st in MLB) and 2021 (93, 18th in MLB). This year, however, a switch has seemingly flipped as the Mariners in the early going through Monday’s games were fourth in both wRC+ and batting fWAR.
After signing reigning AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray to a contract early in the offseason, Mariners fans might have thought that such a jump in the offensive performance would have meant a huge step forward for their outfield prospects Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodríguez. Or perhaps the hitters acquired from the fire-selling Reds would light up the scoreboard as change-of-scenery candidates. Surprisingly, none of those have really been the case:
Save for Suárez, none of the “new” Mariners have been even a league-average hitter to this point. How have the Mariners gone from a below-average offensive team to fourth in all of baseball, then? There’s one particular aspect of offense that has stuck out from their profile from the previous year:
The 2022 Mariners are walking more than anyone in baseball, and among Mariners with at least 100 plate appearances in 2021, all of them are walking more this season (save for Jarred Kelenic, whose walk rate is down just 1%, and Mitch Haniger, who has not yet reached 40 PA). The Seattle newcomers (note to self: grunge band name idea) have also increased their respective walk rates. Suárez is up 2.4% (12.2%) and Winker is up a whopping 7.2% (18.1%).
Normally, with that kind of a jump, the first place to look is at the team’s plate discipline stats. Perhaps there is a change in philosophy, or the new players getting more plate appearances are simply more prone to taking their walks to get on base.
Last year, the Mariners swung at 46.6% of pitches, 20th in MLB. This season, they’ve offered at 46.8% of pitches, 16th in MLB. Their chase rate tells a similar story, with a slight increase in their swings outside the zone in 2022. The Mariners are swinging more, chasing more (albeit both extremely slightly), yet are getting on base significantly more often. They are making contact more often, but the walk rate is where they’ve really earned their record so far.
In 2021, the Mariners saw the eighth-most pitches in the zone of any team in the majors. This season that script has flipped, with the Mariners seeing the tenth-fewest strikes of all teams.
The Mariners are about as aggressive as they’ve been in previous years at the plate, but it appears pitchers are simply throwing fewer pitchers in the zone to offer at, even when compared to the rest of the league.
It’s strange to consider that a middle-of-the-road team by plate discipline would just start seeing fewer strikes thrown that would lead to a significant jump in their offense, but the walk rate going from league-average to league-best in the span of an offseason while the plate discipline rates have largely remained the same seem to indicate just that.
It’s barely May, and a May without a full spring training at that. Teams are still going to be subject to wide variances in the strength of competition and pitching they’ve faced less than 15% of the way through the regular season. In fact, the Mariners have had the second-easiest schedule in the division so far, behind only the Astros. However, that distinction is probably limited in its usefulness for our purposes, as teams with good records so early in the season are going to naturally have “easier” schedules by virtue of the teams they’ve won against having worse records (because they got beat).
One wonders if the Mariners’ opponents would be better served to deliver more strikes to the plate and challenge Seattle’s hitters more directly, to see if they’ll regress to an average offense rather than one of the very best in all of baseball. Many of those Mariner hitters are scuffling, so throwing more in the zone and trying to limit baserunners might be opportune.
On the Mariners’ side of things, they have to be pleased with the offensive performance so far knowing there’s significant room for growth from their young prospects and, hopefully, the return of all-star Mitch Haniger to the regular lineup at some point. Those walks, runs, and wins are already in the books, regardless of how many strikes they get thrown moving forward. Even with some substantial regression from some of their offensive stars in the early going, if those new additions to Seattle can take a step forward, there’s not much reason to believe the Mariners can’t now be an above-average offense the rest of the way.