BY Steve Rudman 06:30AM 06/14/2016

Former small-ball Mariners rival Griffey’s clubs

With 94 home runs in 63 games, the Mariners are on track to hit 241, which would place them in company the Ken Griffey Jr.-Jay Buhner Kingdome teams of the late 1990s.

Robinson Cano leads the Mariners with 18 home runs. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

Rewind to April 6, when the Mariners completed a 2-1 series win at Globe Life Park with a 9-5 victory over the Texas Rangers. In that game, Robinson Cano homered in the first inning and again in the ninth, giving him four long balls in the season’s first three games. The significance: no player in franchise history, not even Ken Griffey Jr., had ever hit four home runs in the first three games of a season.

With those two blasts, Cano also became one of two second basemen in major league history to homer at least four times in his team’s first three games, joining future Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, who had a quartet in the first three of the 1941 season for the Boston Red Sox.

Cano’s out-of-the gate splurge contrasts sharply with his first two seasons in Seattle. In 2014, Cano played 67 games before belting his fourth homer. Last year, he needed 71 to hit home run No. 4. Battling injuries that ultimately required off-season surgery, Cano finished with 21. Injury-free this season, Cano has 18 through 63 games.

Cano’s rejuvenation has gone a long way toward placing this Mariner club on track to become the most prolific long-ball outfit in the Safeco Field era (since mid-1999). That’s actually not a huge feat considering that the Mariners moved the fences in by as much as 17 feet in some places following the 2012 season.

The major change came in the left-field power alley, where the distance from the plate to the wall was reduced from 390 feet to 378. Minor changes occurred in center (405 to 401) and the right power alley (387 to 381).

The Mariners hit 51 home runs in their first 33 home games, which projects to 125 for 81 Safeco dates. The Mariners have never hit more than 90 in a season under the new ballpark configuration. Overall, this is how the Mariners compare through 63 games to the other editions of the club since Safeco was re-formatted four years ago:

Year Gms HRs Leaders
2016 63 94 Mariners No. 2 in AL, on pace for 241 home runs
2013 63 71 Hit 188 home runs, ranking second in AL
2015 63 66 Finished with 198, ranking 5th in American League
2014 63 49 Hit 138, ranking 10th in the American League

Remarkable about this Mariners team is that it could wind up hitting more home runs than all but three others in franchise history, a total it’s probably going to need if it hopes to overtake Texas  — not a bright prospect after losing five of their past six to the Rangers — in the AL West.

Seattle’s 94 homers in 63 games projects to 241. That would trail only the clubs from 1997 (264), 1996 (245) and 1999 (244). All three, as well as the 1998 edition that hit 234, featured Ken Griffey Jr. (417), Edgar Martinez (309) and Jay Buhner (307), who still rank 1-2-3 on the list of individual career clouts.

With the exception of Nelson Cruz, who arrived in Seattle with a home run history and belted 44 last year, this Mariner sclub was supposed to feature gap-hitting small-ballers. Instead, this is how it ranks among the best homer-hitting clubs through 63 games in team annals:

Year Gms. HRs Skinny
1999 63 123 Ken Griffey Jr. hit 24 of the 123, finished with 48
1996 63 108 Jay Buhner hit 23 of his 44 HRs in April-May-June
1998 63 100 Griffey 11 homers in April, Alex Rodriguez 11 in May
2016 63 94 Cano 18, Cruz 15, Seager 10, Lee 10, Martin 10
1994 63 93 Season ended Aug. 11 when players went on strike
1997 63 92 Griffey had 30 before ASB en route to 56
2000 63 82 Top game by A-Rod: 3 HRs, 7 RBIs vs. Toronto
1985 65 74 Finished with 171 HRs, 32 from Gorman Thomas
2013 63 71 Finished with 188 HRs, 28 from Raul Ibanez

The Griffey-Martinez-Buhner teams played in the smaller, warmer, dead-air Kingdome, where homers were relatively cheap, vs. the expansive and cooler Safeco Field, where heavier, cooler air makes the park pitcher-dominant.

According to ESPN’s Park Factors, in the three seasons since the Mariners shortened the fences, Safeco has ranked as the game’s worst venue for extra-base hits and only slightly more favorable for home runs. Yet, this Mariner club has had little difficulty poking the ball out of the place, or any place, for that matter.

Cano didn’t hit his 18th home run last year until Sept. 22. The earliest he’s reached 18: June 27, 2012 with the Yankees. Leonys Martin, just off the disabled list after two weeks off, has 10 in 44 games, two fewer than the 12 he hit in the past two years (250 games) combined. With six homers, Seth Smith is halfway to his 2015 total of 12 in just 53 contests.

This Mariners would seem unlikely candidates to duplicate the home run production of the 1997 team, which had an American League-record 264. That club featured the third-highest all-time total  — 96 — by two teammates, Griffey with 56 and Buhner 40. With 1B Paul Sorrento adding 31, the Mariners became only the second AL team with three players exceeding 30, joining the 1964 Twins.

On the other hand, who knows? These Mariners are on pace to duplicate the 1997 club’s feat of nine players with 10 or more homers (five already have 10 or more). And Friday, for the fourth consecutive game, a different Mariner hit two home runs. No team in major league history had four different players hit multiple home runs in four consecutive contests in the same season,  as did Cruz (June 7 vs. Cleveland), Chris Iannetta (June 8 vs. Cleveland), Cano (June 9 vs. Cleveland) and Dae-Ho Lee (June 10 vs. Texas).

While Cano’s surge is almost entirely attributable to the return of his health, at least some of Seattle’s newly found power may stem from the emphasis GM Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais have placed on controlling the strike zone. But the resurgence actually started before the Mariners hired Dipoto to replace Jack Zduriencik, and Dipoto tapped Servais to take over for Lloyd McClendon.

Last June 20, the Mariners hired Edgar Martinez as team’s batting coach, replacing Howard Johnson. Seattle played 68 games when Martinez returned to the dugout. This is how Seattle performed under Johnson (remember, Cano was hurt) and how it has performed since Martinez took over (R=runs per game):

Year Dates Bat Coach Gms. R BA OBP SLG OPS
2015 4-6/6-19 H. Johnson 68 3.3 .233 .295 .375 .670
2015 6-20/10-4 E. Martinez 94 4.5 .249 .311 .411 .722
2016 4-4/6-12 E. Martinez 63 5.0 .260 .331 .440 .769

Martinez had a mastery of the strike zone back in his day. Apparently, Martinez could not only do, he can teach.

Next

The Mariners begin a 10-day, 10-game road trip Tuesday night with the first of three against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. RHP Taijuan Walker (3-6, 3.48) will lead it off for Seattle opposite RHP Jake Odorizzi (3-3, 3.47). Following the trio in Tampa, the Mariners will play three in Boston and four in Detroit before returning to Safeco Field Friday, June 24 for a three-game series with the St. Louis Cardinals.


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