Staff of Redemption: A Deep Dive Into the Game of the Mariners

Staff of Redemption: A Deep Dive Into the Game of the Mariners

by July 2, 2021 0 comments

With a record of 41-38, the Seattle Mariners are not exactly World Series contenders. That isn’t a major surprise in the Pacific Northwest, but cannot be said for all teams within that record range (hello, Yankees). Seattle entered this year with a bullpen that looked like one of the worst in the league. By some magic (pitching coach Pete Woodworth?), the Mariners have seen many positive developments in their bullpen. This is a formal announcement that the Mariners are officially using demon magic from The Staff of Redemption™. Thanks to Google, we know this is not already a thing.

Disclaimer

Please remember that the Mariners are still a bad team. While they are over .500, Seattle is still not good. The Staff of Redemption™ can go away at any time, especially if the league makes umpires start checking for it as a “foreign substance”. Also, note that The Staff of Redemption™ does not work for every pitcher. Justus Sheffield‘s 71 ERA+ and .523 xSLG against, as well as Marco Gonzales‘ .322 xBA against proves this. Rafael Montero and Will Vest are the real heroes, balancing out the Seattle ‘pen so no one gets too suspicious.

Explaining “The Staff”

The rebuilding Mariners had very little resources entering 2021, so they brought in (or retained) a ton of pitchers with previous MLB struggles but with some upside. So far, these low-effort bets are paying out well for the team. You may attribute it to stats, or Woodworth, but we’ll go with The Staff instead.

If all of the Seattle pitchers were in their own video game, then The Staff would be the overpowered item. Some have found it and become above-average pitchers. Others have settled for The Tablet of Mediocrity™ and have disappointed. The Tablet is far less fun to talk about than The Staff. Why is this a 2021-centric thing? The answer is that pitchers realized their foreign substance cheating would be too recognizable; here is an easier option to cover up.

The Top-Two Starters Are…

Of the six main starting pitchers for the Mariners, half of them have an ERA+ over the league average of 100. If you were told this entering the season and asked to guess who, Gonzales would be the lock, with young pitchers Logan Gilbert, Sheffield, and Justin Dunn candidates to fill out the other two spots. Only one of those four actually reaches the threshold. It is Dunn, who is currently injured and his 108 ERA+ is not exceptionally odd given his prospect status. He may have avoided the game altogether and trusted luck as opposed to a staff or tablet cheat.

The other two starters are Yusei Kikuchi and Chris Flexen. If you were told about Kikuchi’s 2021 ERA+ of 121 when he entered the league as a 28-year-old import in 2019, this may not be a surprise. Perhaps Kikuchi was pressured by hefty expectations just a year after Shohei Ohtani‘s crash on North America, but things did not work out in the southpaw’s first two seasons. He made 32 starts in 2019, and nine in 2020, so health was not a factor. The issue was that he was not very good. In his debut year, Kikuchi had a 5.46 ERA, a 5.18 FIP, and a 5.13 xERA. The shortened season was a bit better, as despite a 5.17 ERA he had a 3.30 FIP, 3.78 xFIP, and a 3.42 xERA. Right now, he sits at a 3.34 ERA and a 3.47 xFIP.

The lesson to be said here is how much strikeouts can make a difference. In 161.2 innings in 2019 (just one out away from qualifying), Kikuchi had a meager 116 strikeouts for a 6.5 K/9. He went 47-in-47 the next year and is now 87-in-86.1. However, there is a much simpler way to find the improvements. The major drop from a 2.0 HR/9 is one of them, but it is really the H/9. In 2019, Kikuchi allowed over a hit-per-inning with an atrocious 10.9 H/9. That went down to 7.9 in 2020 and to 6.3 this year. So if you want to improve your analytics, don’t just strike more guys out. Instead, limit hits. Simple, right?

Weird Flex(en)

The final starter to reap The Staff’s benefits is Flexen. You may remember him from the many awful Mets pitching staffs over the past few seasons that passed around The Metsy, an item that automatically causes a game over. Jacob deGrom clearly had no care for this game. From 2017 to 2019, Flexen had an 8.07 ERA for New York. He went to the KBO during the pandemic (where a full baseball season was played), and performed well enough to get $4.75 million over this year and the next from Seattle. Flexen, who turns 27 in a few days, had a 3.01 ERA with 132 strikeouts in 116.2 innings for Doosan. Korea doesn’t seem to have this nonsense of a video game, so that made him at least worth a shot, right? Especially on what looked like a terrible Mariners team.

So far, Flexen has not been a Cy Young contestant and may have the worst numbers on the list of improved Mariners. However, he has been an above-average starting pitcher. Given the price the Mariners paid for him, they’ll take it. Flexen had a 6.5 K/9 as a Met and then was over 10 K/9 in the KBO. Unfortunately, the past MLB side of the coin has shown, as he has 50 strikeouts in 74.1 innings for a 6.1 ratio. He has made up for it by fixing an issue that plagued his time with the Mets. In New York, Flexen had a 7.1 BB/9. He had actually become one of the best pitchers at limiting it this year, with a 4.7 walk percentage. Flexen’s improved control has allowed him to become a better pitcher, despite a drop in fastball velocity and effectiveness from 2019.

At the time of this writing, Flexen has made 13 starts as a Mariner. In them, he has a 3.87 ERA, a 3.81 FIP, and a 105 ERA+. That is amazing work for a guy entering the season with a career 51 ERA+.

A Return to Form

The first two relievers to highlight both are notable thanks to some form of past success. Drew Steckenrider was still a risky bet, but much safer than most of the names brought in by the club. An eighth-round pick of the Marlins, Steckenrider was a part of their bullpen for three seasons. For the first two, he was good; in both years, Steckenrider’s xERA was below 3.50. He threw a five pitch arsenal in 2018, but decided to cut it down to just two for 2019. His curveball was effective, with a 33.3 percent whiff rate and allowed an average under .100. The fastball was not, as it has gradually seen a decrease in velocity.

Steckenrider was injured, and after posting a 6.28 ERA and a 5.99 xFIP in 15 games was placed on the injured list with an elbow problem. In Spring Training 1.0 of 2020, Steckenrider showed up hurt once more. He was rocked over his outings, and when the year resumed, he was placed on the IL once again, this time with right triceps tendinitis. He would not pitch for Miami again.

In 2021, the reliever has kept his fastball and curveball, resulting in similar results from 2019, albeit with a further velocity shortage. The real difference-maker for him has been the return of his changeup. A defunct pitch since 2018, Steckenrider has used it 15.5 percent of the time this year, with a .048 average against plus a 35.3 percent whiff rate. Despite not being used as often as his other two pitches, it has been instrumental in Steckenrider’s success. Right now, he has a 2.22 ERA, a 3.63 xERA, and 30 strikeouts in 28.1 innings.

Also notable is JT Chargois, a former Minnesota second-round pick. In 2018, Chargois was a Dodger, and a solid middle-relief arm. Then, he had a 3.34 ERA with a 2.98 xFIP. A sinker-slider pitcher, Chargois had only the latter work out for him in 2019, as batters went 9-for-20 versus the sinker, although the slider had a 51.2 percent whiff rate.

After not pitching in 2020, Chargois is back for the Mariners. He has decreased usage of his sinker, down to just 23.5 percent. This allows it to be less expected by hitters, with the 10 mph difference between it and the slider fooling hitters. The increased slider usage has hurt its whiff rate but has made Chargois a better overall pitcher. His H/9 has decreased to 5.5 from 8.9 in 2019 and he has a 2.53 ERA with a 3.22 xERA, and a 3.39 xFIP.

Wait, These Guys are Good Now?

The third and final category of improved Mariners pitchers are familiar faces, but more so on voodoo dolls of fans of their previous teams. Two of these guys were once starters but have found success in the bullpen.

The first is Kendall Graveman, a failed starter with the A’s. He had Tommy John surgery in 2018 after a nasty beginning to the season. In seven starts, he had a 7.60 ERA with a 7.1 K/9. Generally, whatever game the Athletics play has overpowered items easy for pitchers. Graveman must have been bad at the game. The Mariners tried him out in their bullpen last year and the results were similar. This year, they’ve been better.

By some Tommy John magic, Graveman has respawned on an extra life with his velocity going through the roof. In 2018, his average sinker went 93.6 mph. Now? 96.6 mph. That is a massive increase, likely aided by a change to the bullpen. As of now, Graveman has a 1.19 ERA with what would be a career-best 8.3 K/9. He has a newly developed slider to thank. The pitch was used in 2018 but had a whiff rate under ten percent, which is awful for a slider. This new and improved pitch has batters slugging .240 with a 44.4 percent whiff rate against it. Graveman does have a 4.04 xERA which is a step-down, but his xFIP of 3.25 is good. His 1.4 bWAR is second among Seattle pitchers to Kikuchi.

The pain is not over yet for the Mets fans still reading. Flexen’s former New York teammate, Paul Sewald, is also succeeding. The change for Sewald is less obvious. He has allowed just three earned runs all month, all coming on June 1 against Oakland. He has settled in as Scott Servais‘ eighth-inning reliever, with an increasingly effective fastball. From 2017 to 2020, Sewald had a 5.50 ERA with the Mets, although his xERA was under 4.00 in each of those seasons aside from his five-game 2020. He had control, as in 2019 he walked just 3.8 percent of batters. His walk rate has actually inflated this year, up to 12.5 percent.

Thankfully for Sewald, his strikeout rate also inflated. Right now, he has pitched 19.1 innings. He has 32 strikeouts and has walked as many batters (10) as hits allowed. Despite a career-high walk rate, his 1.034 WHIP is a best. Along with the 1.86 ERA, Sewald has a 1.39 FIP, a 2.79 xERA, and a 3.03 xFIP. Feel bad Mets fans? It could get worse. The Mariners also have Daniel Zamora, the former New York southpaw who had a 5.19 ERA in 17 games in 2019. So far, he has not been good as a Mariner, but it has been just four outings. The lesson here is to bet against The Metsy.

A Sticky Situation

His name may be in the news for a different reason, but Hector Santiago has also been a surprise for the Mariners. His upcoming 10-game suspension after being ejected for alleged foreign substances has clouded that. The journeyman left-hander is on his fifth team right now, coincidentally including the Mets, as well. He has become a multi-inning relief option for Servais and has excelled. Santiago’s 23 strikeouts in 17 innings make a career-best 12.2 K/9. He also has limited batters to a .197 xBA with a 2.64 xERA and a 3.23 xFIP. Lastly, Santiago’s spin rate on all of his pitches sits in the low-2000s, which is really low. So, him being the guy being suspended for foreign substances that raise spin rate seems… odd.

Beating the Game

The Staff of Redemption™ has obviously helped the Mariners this year. The serious conclusion is that Woodworth may just be a really good pitching coach. The guy is a 32-year-old who pitched in the Rays system once but is now fixing the Mariners. Will this last? It is yet to be seen. But for now, things are looking up. The team is also missing Erik Swanson and Casey Sadler to injury, the two of which combining to allow three earned runs in 24 innings. If those guys don’t get hurt, this could be a whole lot longer.


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