The Mariners were once the most formidable offense in baseball. In recent years, they’ve been the worst. Lately, the power has come back. False positive, or real deal?
To find another time when the Mariners hit in the recent prodigious fashion, fans have to go back to the days before Jay Buhner was screeching from the TV, demanding we buy trucks. Looong time ago. He used to play baseball here back in the day when an 11-8 number was a typical game outcome and not the average temperature in Phoenix.
In 1997, Buhner hit a career-high 40 home runs. But in the club derby, his butt was kicked by Ken Griffey Jr., who had 56. Edgar Martinez finished fourth at 28, behind Paul Sorrento’s 31. Russ Davis had 20, and the main guy behind the plate, Dan Wilson, had 15. Jose Cruz Jr. had 12, and even Little Joey Freakin’ Cora had 11.
Back when email was the new populist technology and cell phones were still the size of cereal boxes, the Mariners hit 264 home runs and scored 925 runs. In a single season. Yes, they played in the Kingdome. The numbers still counted. The team OPS was .839.
The Mariners led the majors by a mile — Cleveland was second in homers with 220 — and Seattle was in thrall; 3.2 million coming indoors in a Seattle summer to watch baseball.
Fast forward 15 years, pausing at 2012. The Mariners hit 149 homers and scored 619 runs with a team OPS of .665, all last in the majors. Catcher John Jaso led the team with an .850 OPS — about what the 1997 team averaged. And that was an upgrade from 2011, when they had 109 homers and 556 runs, led by Miguel Olivo’s 19 dingers and Mike Carp’s .791 OPS, with a team OPS of .641. And 1.6 million people showed up.
What is sought in these numbers is a little perspective. In fact, longtime Mariners fans have more perspective than most markets when it comes to baseball offense — they have seen the best and the worst.
Granted, much is different between the eras — big outdoor stadium vs. small indoor stadium, rampant PEDs vs. fewer PEDs, and the growing dominance of pitching over hitting throughout MLB.
Nevertheless, the homestand that ended Sunday produced 48 runs in seven games and was a massive storm for fans parched after five years of drought. It is easy to be swept away in the novelty of the flood.
The goal of course, is a sustainable flow. And there’s little to suggest that it’s here; or that’s it’s not.
The lineup the Mariners used Sunday to beat the Angels 4-3 and sweep their first series of the season is the best they can offer: catcher Mike Zunino (.235), first baseman Justin Smoak (.272), second baseman Nick Franklin (.268), shortstop Brad Miller (.246), third baseman Kyle Seager (.293), left fielder Raul Ibanez (.267), center fielder Dustin Ackley (.205) and right fielder Michael Saunders (.225) and DH Kendrys Morales (.280).
Two obvious things about the group: With the exception of the 41-year-old Ibanez — who is wrinkling time in a fashion that will have astrophysicists in the clubhouse Friday seeking a word with him — all of the hitters are 30 and under and, with the exception of Ackley, becoming productive.
There are no sub-Mendoza Line performers, something that has been hard to say in Seattle since the great 2001 team of 116 wins. All that is very cool for Mariners fans.
The flip side is that three are rookies (Zunino, Franklin and Miller) and two others are young veterans (Smoak and Saunders) who have histories of periodic fades. So the MLB track record for five guys in the lineup is spotty or non-existent.
The trouble with rookies is that they are rookies. The Mariners front office is asking a lot very quickly. For those who remember the 1997 team, which won 90 games and the AL West title, most of them then were as Morales is now — prime-timers. The virtue of producing steadily at the MLB level is, for 95 percent of hitters, a function more of experience than talent. To reach the majors requires talent. To stay in the majors takes smarts borne of experience.
Naturals like Griffey, Rodriguez, John Olerud, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are so rare that they don’t belong in the conversation.
But the Mariners are trying to force one of the young’uns into the chat — Zunino. He is the one player upon whom any upward arc in the second half most depends, and it’s why he’s in Seattle one year after being drafted out of college.
The circumstance is that he is largely irreplaceable within the organization. In his first month in the bigs, he is catching six days a week. The Mariners have already burned through Jesus Montero, Kelly Shoppach and Jesus Sucre and recently brought 41-year-old Henry Blanco virtually out of retirement to catch one day a week and mentor Zunino.
He’s playing the most difficult position in the game with just a season and change in minor league experience. So far, manager Eric Wedge thinks the Mariners are getting away with it.
“I like what I see,” said Wedge of Zunino. “He’s handled all of the pitchers fine, he’s thrown the ball well, works hard. He’s getting a better feel for our pitchers in regard to calling a game. And he’s getting experience with the league. Those are all positives.”
In the homestand, he was 7 for 22 with three RBIs, bringing his average since the June 12 callup to .235. He was at .238 in AAA Tacoma. As is often said of catchers, anything done with the bat is a bonus. But in Zunino’s case, because the Mariners are so thin, he needs to do it all.
Because of the nature of the job, he should be getting more credit for the Mariners’ 8-5 run against the Rangers, Reds, Red Sox and Angels that closed the first half. And if he slips in the second half, longtime Mariners fans will be quick to label him the next Jeff Clement.
Clement was one among many false positives for the Mariners. Wedge, GM Jack Zduriencik, both in their contract years, desperately need Zunino, more than anyone else, to be the real deal.