BY Steve Rudman 06:30AM 07/03/2014

Mariners are finally hitting when it counts

The Mariners enter a series with the Chicago White Sox riding a four-game winning streak and nine games above .500 for the first time since 2007.

Robinson Cano is batting .379 with runners in scoring position, helping the Mariners to a vastly improved .268 team mark. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

After sweeping a trio in Houston, outscoring the Astros 28-8, to start a six-game, seven-day road trip, the Mariners (47-38) find themselves nine games above .500 for the first time since the end of the 2007 season, a baseball eternity ago. The current roll –  four wins in a row, 10 of 12 and six consecutive on the road – is already prompting playoff jabber on sports radio, even though …

(a) Remaining are 77 full-of-potholes games; (b) a losing record in the home park (21-22); (c) even after sweeping last-place Houston, the Mariners are the only wild card candidate without a winning record (24-24) against sub.-500 teams; (d) history suggests their luck probably won’t last.

In arriving at 47-38, the Mariners had three five-game winning streaks and losing streaks of eight, five, five and four games. Just when you think they’ve fixed their bearings on due north, they tumble south. Also keep in mind that these are the Mariners – a franchise historically constructed to disappoint.

Go back two days shy of three years ago, to July 5, 2011. The Mariners won three in a row and four of five to even their record at 43-43. Local optimism soared, thoughts of an end to a 10-year absence from the AL playoffs temporarily kindled.

The Mariners responded to the enthusiasm with a franchise-record 17-game losing streak, sucking all oxygen out of that season.

Fans with a modicum of memory have reason to be cautious with their emotions over the recent run. Fans with a longer attention span probably won’t bother with an emotional investment, even if it’s warranted, until the Seahawks are in Week 3.

There is, though, one key difference with the 2014 Mariners. It’s the main reason they are nine games over .500. No, not starting pitching, good as it’s been. No, not the bullpen, even with an 0.79 ERA over the last 12.

After Wednesday’s 5-2 win at Houston, the Mariners are hitting .268 with runners in scoring position. The big deal? Last year, they hit .228, the key stat in a 71-91 black eye and fourth-place finish. The Mariners have not hit above .250 with RISP in any of the last five seasons. Their .268 this year is best the team has hit in a decade.

In fact, the 40 points the Mariners have gained on their RISP batting average from last season to this represents the greatest one-season turnaround in franchise history – by a significant margin, as the following shows:

Manager From To Gain RISP Leader
Lloyd McClendon 2013 / .228 2014 / .268 +40 Bloomquist, .429; Cano, .379
Darrell Johnson 1978 / .237 1979 / .272 +35 Simpson, .318; Bochte, .308
Del Crandall 1983 / .229 1984 / .257 +28 Henderson, .290; Davis, .270
Lou Piniella 1993 / .246 1994 / .271 +25 Blowers, .347; Griffey, .290
Mike Hargrove 2006 / .265 2007 / .283 +18 Ichiro .397, Betancourt .345
Lou Piniella 2000 / .278 2001 / .295 +17 Ichiro, .445; Javier, .313
Lou Piniella 2002 / .280 2003 / .297 +17 Martinez, .352; Ichiro, .343
Eric Wedge 2011 / .222 2012 / .239 +17 Jaso, .378; Seager, .308

Largely as a result of clutch hitting, the Mariners have a +70 run differential. Among all MLB teams, only the Oakland Athletics, at +125, are better.

DELIVERANCE

Robinson Cano has batted 66 times this season with a runner in scoring position. He has delivered 25 hits, a .379 average. Only two Mariners ever had higher marks over the course of a season, including Ichiro (.445 in 2001), Ichiro (.397 in 2007) and Edgar Martinez (.384, 1995).

More impressive than his .379 with RISP is Cano’s 1.167 OPS with runners poised to score. Only two Mariners have ever done better and neither was named Ken Griffey Jr. Best single-season OPS marks with RISP:

Year Player AB R H BA OBP SLG OPS
1995 Edgar Martinez 138 93 53 .384 .532 .674 1.205
2000 Jay Buhner 102 38 30 .294 .431 .745 1.176
2014 Robinson Cano 66 40 25 .379 .470 .697 1.167
1994 Ken Griffey Jr. 100 58 29 .290 .438 .720 1.158
1986 Ken Phelps 82 42 22 .268 .479 .646 1.126
2012 John Jaso 74 32 28 .378 .485 .622 1.106
1997 Ken Griffey Jr. 146 72 49 .336 .420 .671 1.091
1989 Alvin Davis 127 64 46 .362 .491 .598 1.090

KEEPING UP WITH JONES

After going 7-for-11 the first two games of the Houston series, including a four-hit, three-steal effort Monday (first Mariner to do that since Ichiro in 2004), rookie James Jones went 1-for-5 Wednesday – without a stolen base. This leaves him with 17 swipes in 57 games, including 205 at-bats.

Question: How many players since 1914 (when statistics first became available) have stolen 17 or more bases in the first 60 – or fewer – games of a career with a maximum of 205 at-bats? Answer: seven, including the less-than-legendary Fitz Maisel 101 years ago. The list:

Year Player Team Games AB H BA SB
1991 Ced Landrum Cubs 56 86 20 .233 27
1913 Fritz Maisel Yankees 51 187 48 .257 25
1987 Donnell Nixon Mariners 46 132 33 .250 21
1974 Morris Nettles Angels 56 175 48 .274 20
2009 Julio Borbon Rangers 46 157 49 .312 19
1996 Luis Castillo Marlins 41 164 43 .262 17
2014 James Jones Mariners 57 205 60 .293 17

NEXT

Following a day off Thursday, the Mariners begin a three-game series at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago Friday. RHP Roenis Elias (7-6, 3.96) will pitch the opener opposite LHP Chris Sale (7-1, 2.30). Felix Hernandez (10-2, 2.10), named the American League’s Pitcher of the Month for June Wednesday, throws Saturday.


YourThoughts

  • Tim

    I appreciate the guarded optimism. Yeah, I’m excited, but as a fan for decades, I need the grim reminder that we’re not close to being there yet thanks to years of ineptitude in the front office. Imagine this team though with Nelson Cruz in the line-up from the start of the season…we might be looking backwards at teams chasing us…

    • Effzee

      Unfortunately, Cruz did not fit into whatever vision for this season that Howie has. The reason I am not ready to jump aboard, fun as this little stretch is, is that Lincoln is still at the main controls. Winning is not his priority. Never has been, never will be. Turning a profit is his priority. All he wants is to bring fans back to SafeCo Field. Right now, his product is just good enough to do that, which is probably (if history teaches us anything) good enough for him.

  • jafabian

    I remember that 17 game swoon. It was so bad it affected the culture of the clubhouse and carried into the next season. That’s why I can’t jump on this team’s bandwagon just yet. And I’m not sure if they have the fortitude for a playoff run. That being said, it’s nice to be on the winning side for a change and to see them winning games they should be winning.

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  • 1coolguy

    It appears the addition of Cano is paying off, much to my pleasant surprise.
    He is the hitter everyone knew him to be, yet the addition of what appears to be his leadership is what is paying off. Unlike Ichiro, just as good a hitter, Cano is helping the other players to improve their hitting. Ichiro was an island unto himself, an unfortunate opportunity wasted, in terms of his helping other players.
    McClendon of course has to be recognized, as Detroit won the league batting title 4 of the 7 years he was their batting coach. Also, with the club leading the league in ERA, whoever the pitching coach is needs to be recognized.
    So we have a real leader added to the clubhouse (Cano) and apparently much better coaching, all this and more, adding up to a much better team than we have seen in many, many years.
    I will actually buy tickets this year!

    • RadioGuy

      Agreed about Cano. I’ve generally had little interest in listening to anything Shannon Dreyer has to say ever since she used to go into Mama Grizzly mode whenever anyone criticized Jarrod Washburn (what was up with THAT?…on second thought, I don’t want to know), but during a postgame show earlier this week she came up with some pretty good insights about what a leader he’s been to this team and how he’s stepped up and worked with the younger players. She didn’t say it but he’s turning out to be the anti-Ichiro, who was a great player but only played for himself.

      Is Cano still overpriced? Yes, but not by as much as originally thought. He has surprised me by how he’s becoming the heart and soul of this team and is not the kind of guy I expected when he came to Seattle. The New York fans crucified him for being lazy and a little selfish, but I haven’t seen any of that.

    • jafabian

      If it takes Cano working with the players to get the team to hit better it’s time to fire the hitting coach and make Cano the hitting coach. I think having a team leader is overrated. The leaders are the coaches. The difference between the way the M’s are now and during Ichiro’s stay isn’t because they have a “real leader.” This is a much better team talent wise than in the best and some are finally realizing it. And some are still a work in progress. It’s still too early to think this club has finally turned a corner after not making the playoffs for more than a decade.

      The club knew Ichiro was a private person when they acquired him. He said the reason that he wanted out of Japan was because he had no privacy there. The issue was after Lou left the club never put a team around him that supported his talents the way then did when Edgar and Junior were here. The difference there is the GM.

  • Steven

    It’s July 3rd. No matter what happens today, the Mariners will still have a better record at the end of the night than any team in the AL East by a half-game.

    When is the last time that’s happened?

  • Tian Biao

    Ms still have some big holes in their roster, such as shortstop and wherever Saunders is playing, and the back end of the rotation is pretty weak, but yeah, it’s been a good start, and a surprising one, and however the ride ends it’s been a lot of fun so far. and thanks for the stats, Steve, though I did not expect to see Betancourt on any of those lists.

    • Brett

      Saunders has had a good year, and Miller has hit nearly .300 over the last month. The holes on the team are in LF and DH.

  • RadioGuy

    FWIW, regarding the RISP gain list above: Wasn’t Bob Melvin the manager in 2003? The list names Lou Piniella as manager but I think his last year was 2002.

  • Matt712

    Cano’s leadership and example has coincided nicely with some inevitable maturing of the younger players. The big difference between being even on 7/5/11 and being +7 on 7/5/14 is the confidence that 3 more years of experience brings to a still pretty young core. They’re playing more within themselves, not pressing so much. There’s a lot to like about what’s trending with this team. But unless the organization goes after another legit hitter, I can’t quite jump on the wagon.