All-in-all, it was a pretty good day for the Mariners. They split their double-header with the Tigers, the pitching was…acceptable…and the hitting was pretty good. You’ll find this recap isn’t negative overall, but to begin with anything else would be burying the lede: Manny Acta messed up today, and it likely cost the Mariners a win.
The play in question came in the bottom of the sixth of game one, when Grayson Greiner lined a single into right field. Haniger charged, scooped, and uncorked a throw right on the money to catcher Mike Zunino, who slapped the tag down on JaCoby Jones before his foot hit the plate. Home plate umpire Scott Barry, though, must’ve been watching a different play, because he emphatically ruled Jones safe, and the Tigers had a 2-1 lead.
You can see from the photo attached to this story that it wasn’t particularly close. It looked fairly close in real-time, though I’d argue he looked out at full speed, too. On a play this clear, even the wildly inconsistent umpire review team in New York probably couldn’t screw this up. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t have the chance to. Manny Acta, managing the team while Scott Servais is attending his daughter’s graduation at Ole Miss, screwed up for them, opting not to challenge.
Marco Gonzales, who was not good, but not bad either, served up a tater to the very next batter, Jose Iglesias, and the Tigers extended their lead to 4-1.
The Mariners would get two back the next inning on a pair of RBI groundouts that drove in Seager, who was hit by a pitch, and Ryon Healy, who had doubled. But that would be all the Mariners would get. They threatened again in the ninth inning, loading the bases with two outs, but Dee Gordon grounded out to first, and the Tigers took game one.
After the game, Acta didn’t want to point fingers, claiming that there had been a miscommunication between himself and the folks in charge of telling the manager when he should challenge. It was a pretty lame excuse—it should be a yes-or-no question. Should I challenge? If the answer is yes, you challenge. If the answer is no, you don’t. The fact that something that simple could be miscommunicated at a crucial point in the game is unfathomable. Sure, the umpires could have still screwed up the review, but at least Acta and the Mariners would know they’d done their part.
Further, regardless of who is to blame, I think it’s important for someone to take responsibility for it, at least publicly. As the manager—even if just for a day in this situation—you are the face of the team. I’d have felt better if Acta simply had said “I made a mistake, and it really cost us today.” By claiming a miscommunication, he essentially was saying that it was nobody’s fault. It was definitely SOMEONE’S fault, and if you don’t want to throw someone under the bus, then just take the bullet for them. Simple, done.
When pressed, Acta did say that it should have been challenged, so I give him some credit for that, but I’d have felt a lot better if he’d just fallen on the sword, rather than making an excuse. I’d be interested to know if the Mariners make any changes to their protocol for deciding when to challenge so that obvious errors like this don’t happen in the future.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing from a fan’s point of view, is knowing this team doesn’t have much of a margin for error if they’re going to get into the playoffs. It’s one thing to lose a game you should win because a player melted down, or someone on the other side had a monster game. It’s another to make, or in this case not make, decisions with in-game strategy or roster construction that have direct and immediate negative consequences.
The Mariners are, in all likelihood, playing for a wild card berth, and if 89 wins gets you in, but 88 leaves you watching from home, the anguish is even greater knowing that choices, not play on the field, probably cost the Mariners a game. It’s not quite as bad as refusing to play Guillermo Heredia regularly, but at least there’s some logic to that. Leaving an important run on the board unchallenged directly cost the Mariners a run, then two more, and likely the first game of the doubleheader.
Luckily for the Mariners, they got to turn right around and play another game to try to wash the taste of bullshit sandwich out of their mouths. It would be an uphill battle, though, because—and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a game started by Felix Hernandez—the pitching match favored the Tigers in game two.
Felix has shown flashes of being able to be a decent starter with the tools he has at his disposal now, but a quick peek at his game logs reveals that he’s only had three starts this season that you could consider truly good: Opening day against the Indians, his seven-strikeout performance against the A’s, and a 5.1 inning, two run performance against the Rangers. All of his other starts have been somewhere between average and awful.
Outside of those starts, Felix has had just one start with a FIP better than 4.92. Today’s 5.36 FIP start (5 innings, 5 runs, 7 strikeouts, 2 walks, a hit batter, 8 hits, and a homer) actually lowered his season FIP to 5.61. Though he deserves to be cut some slack for the fifth run, which scored when Pete Kozma blooped a single to right field, and JaCoby Jones ran through a stop sign to score all the way from first base. Mitch Haniger took a bit of a lackadaisical approach on the play, which isn’t a knock on him—nobody in their right mind tries to score from first on a single—but his slight hesitation on throwing home cost Felix a run.
That said, even without that run coming around to score, Felix was once again bad today, against a team with a 95 wRC+ entering the day that was missing Miguel Cabrera (144 wRC+) and Leonys Martin (131).
For all the talk about how Felix wasn’t going to be a strikeout pitcher anymore, and would reinvent himself into a pitch-to-contact guy who got quick outs…well, we’re still waiting to see that. The only thing Felix has actually been good at this year is getting strikeouts, running an 8.2 K/9. His other rate stats are…not good. Felix is walking 4 batters per nine, and giving up 1.82 homers per nine, and his 37.9% ground ball rate is the lowest of his career by about 9%. Right now, Matt Harvey has a better FIP/xFIP (5.22/4.55) than Felix (5.61/4.80), and everyone seems to accept as fact that Harvey is terrible.
I desperately want Felix to become good again, or even average. But outside of three starts this year, he’s gotten worse. Going back to 2015, it’s been a noticeable decline every single year. The key, as it has been since he started to decline, is probably to rediscover his command. But I’m starting to believe that’s never going to happen. Without a major 180, Felix is the biggest liability in a rotation full of them, and if he finishes the season the way he’s started it, he may not even be guaranteed a spot in the 2019 starting rotation.
The good news is the Mariners don’t really need good pitching to win on most nights. Despite facing the ace of Detroit’s staff, Michael Fulmer, the M’s offense came alive in game two of the doubleheader. Fulmer struggled with command all night, walking three. He was walking on a tightrope all night, hanging on the ropes after Ryon Healy’s seventh home run of the season in the fourth inning. The Mariners finally delivered the knockout punch in the fifth inning when Robinson Cano clobbered a pitch high into the night sky, and did his best Manny Ramirez impression by simply standing at the plate and watching it get way the heck out of there.
That gave the Mariners a 6-2 lead. Remember when giving Felix a four-run lead felt like an automatic win? Pepperidge Farm may remember, but Mariners fans probably don’t. After five innings, it was 6-5, and it felt like this would become a tense one.
Thankfully, the Mariners had no intentions of making their fans sweat. James Pazos pitched a perfect sixth, and let the Mariners offense get back to work. Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz hit back-to-back singles to start the threat. Then Nelson Cruz did something silly, and stole second base even though he only has one leg and a bunch of spare parts found strewn about the lawn supporting him. The Tigers challenged, probably because it’s absurd and unbelievable to think that Nelson Cruz could possibly steal a base. But he did! The call stood, and Kyle Seager would get his chance.
The M’s poured it on from there, with Seager doubling Cano and Cruz home, and scored when Ryon Healy followed with a double of his own. That put the score at 9-5, and Mariners fans could exhale. Nick Vincent allowed one hit in a scoreless seventh while notching two strikeouts, Juan Nicasio bounced back with a perfect eighth, and Dan Altavilla made his return from the DL with a perfect ninth, hitting 99 on the radar gun multiple times.
If you’ve made it this far, I’ve got thoughts on a few players, and since they don’t merit entire posts, I’m just going to cram them in here at the end.
- Ben Gamel entered today’s double header hitting just.218/.256/.341 in 95 games (85 starts) since July 1st of last year. He’s running a .255 BABIP, has 13 doubles, 4 triples, and 7 homers as well as 72 strikeouts and 18 walks in that 352 plate appearance span. He and Guillermo Heredia entered today with an identical .313 career OBP against right-handed pitching, and that includes Heredia’s unbelievably awful 76 plate appearances in September of last year. Heredia has a .351 OBP against lefties in his career, and .329 against all pitchers. This season, Heredia’s getting on base at a .418 clip overall, and .409 against right-handers, in an admittedly small sample size. Heredia also owns the 6th-lowest O-Swing% (percentage of swings at pitches out of the strike zone) in baseball among players with at least 50 plate appearances this season, while Gamel is swinging at 33.3% of pitches out of the zone.Gamel’s hot streak last year was fun, but it was driven by an unsustainably high BABIP, but has probably had more negative consequences than positive. It’s convinced the Mariners that he’s a better player than Guillermo Heredia, and just about any number we have available to us says just the opposite. To me, Gamel looks like a good fourth outfielder who won’t kill you if he has to start for a few weeks. Guillermo Heredia looks like he can be a starter in this league. He was well on his way to a 2-WAR season last year before a dislocated shoulder—which the Mariners shouldn’t have let him play through—led to an awful 76 plate appearance stretch last September.
Heredia is a disciplined hitter, doesn’t strike out much, plays great defense, and can occasionally hit a double or a homer. The Mariners would be wise to give Heredia the keys to left field for a month or two, and see how he handles it. Gamel will still be there to take the plate appearances back if Heredia falls flat on his face. For now, though, the Mariners are a better team with Ben Gamel on the bench.
- Ryon Healy might actually be a really good hitter. I was as skeptical of him as any—I predicted him to have a 115 wRC+ and be worth 0.0 WAR this season thanks to sub-par defense and the first base positional adjustment. But right now, Healy is one of, if not the hottest hitter in baseball. With today’s 3-for-9, 2 2B, 1 HR, 1 BB game, Healy’s season line is up to .272/.306/.593. That’s a 141 wRC+, which is damn good for anyone. Not to mention, he’s doing it with a .268 BABIP despite boasting the highest hard-hit rate of his career (35.7%) and the lowest soft contact rate of his career (16.1%). For context, Nelson Cruz has a career 36.3% hard hit rate, and 16.1% soft contact rate. Basically, Healy’s hitting the ball as hard as Nelson Cruz has over his career.Also encouraging, Healy is swinging at balls outside the zone roughly 10% less often that he has last year, and he’s nearly a fifth of the way to last season’s entire walk total. If Healy keeps anything close to this up—heck, even if he falls down to a 120ish wRC+—this trade is going to look like a steal in a couple years.
So, there’s your really mother-huggin’ long recap, just in time for mother’s day. It should’ve been two, and the way they lost the one is pretty heckin’ frustrating. But better one than none, and there are a lot of good things going on with this team right now. One of those things is James Paxton. Paxton starts tomorrow against some guy named Blaine Hardy, who is a year older than me and went to one of my high school’s rivals, Edmonds-Woodway. For that, I hope he gives up ten runs or so tomorrow, beginning promptly at 10:10 a.m.