Breakfast and Biz 4/20/18 – 10%

Everyone have a beer

It’s always funny watching baseball in April. The catharsis of the game’s return tends to dominate the first week. Soon though, particularly after as contentious an offseason as Mariner fans just experienced, must come the takes. The games count now, and so they must be filled to the brim with meaning.

It is understandable, particularly in a region where recent transplants to the region and/or newer sports fans have largely entered sports fan culture through the NFL, and the Seahawks, where sixteen games is all you get, and a full year’s purpose and effort and cheer and lament has to be packed in.

We are fortunate, then, and would do well to remember, that baseball allows for more space, and more calm. We haven’t quite reached the point where going 0-5 does nothing more than drop his batting average six or seven points, or where a three game losing streak just feels like “a rough patch”, but we’ll get there soon.

Yesterday, the Mariners got destroyed by the Houston Astros, 9-2, after losing 7-1 the day before, and 4-1 the day before that. The fact that rooting for the Mariners to beat the Astros is somewhat analogous to rooting for a 12 seed to beat a 5 in March can be depressing, or frustrating, or really anything you want it to be. The Astros winning the last three days doesn’t change anything. Regardless of record, they were always going to be the more talented of these two rosters by a wide margin. That’s……that’s just the truth.

And that’s ok! The Mariners are 9-8. They have survived injury, largely disastrous starting pitching (Marco Gonzales had by an extremely wide margin his best start of the year yesterday, and did not make it through five innings.), and a bullpen that has, as bullpens always do, crawled afresh from the primordial ooze of April. Like all bullpens it will evolve into its final form sometime around mid-July, and this bullpen has already formed a hell of a giant stinger at the end of its tail.

So, it is with some years spent in this game I tell you, rejoice! The Mariners are 9-8! They are not going to win the division, almost certainly. I don’t know a single Mariner fan who actually believed that they would, so we should be all clear there. While the Mariners have been getting sawed in half by the Astros, the Angels have been getting quartered by the Red Sox, and that is probably the Mariners’ truest inter-division competition for a playoff spot. Nothing anyone has realistically hoped they would be in 2018 has been lost, and in the process I’d add this team has shown it can be pretty damn fun to watch.

Yesterday the Mariners lost, and I went outside. I went for a walk, mowed the lawn, and played with my kids. There have been years when baseball, and more specifically the Seattle Mariners, have played a large part in how I feel on a given day, but those days are past now. It is, of course, verboten to tell others “How to Fan” so I will not do that. I will say, though, that if you enjoy the sun, if you’re fortunate enough to be near family, or if you’ve just felt shut-in the past six months of wind and rain, to maybe just put the game on the radio for a few days, or even maybe not at all.

The Mariners are out there, sure, but they aren’t going anywhere. They’ll be right there, where you left them, anytime you need them. Baseball is a sport wonderfully adaptable to your chosen or needed lifestyle, and will just fill in whatever gaps you choose to leave for it, making for a nice snug fit. I’m going to let it do that this year, and I encourage you to do the same.

Go M’s.

Breakfast and Biz 4/19/18 – Hundredths

Everyone’s great, so does that mean nobody is? Well, actually…

A few months back, during a typically cold and wet northwest evening, my children and I were watching the Olympics together. We had come for the aerial competition, with its gaudy flips and hangtime, but stuck around for four-man bobsledding. The kids, after composing themselves from the thrill of just how fast those men were going down that death-defying coaster of ice, would unfailingly ask me after every run whether the team had done good or bad.

For them, see, there was no difference. There was only pure, blinding, thrilling speed. Saying “well that team went four hundredths of a second faster than the team before them, so they feel like the years of ceaseless toil, financial sacrifice, and effort have been rewarded, while those other guys feel as though the ground has come up and swallowed them whole” just doesn’t resonate with them, and more’s the better for that I suppose.

The only way it could be explained to them was when, through the magic of television, the broadcast superimposed multiple runs on top of each other, similar to that famous Yu Darvish gif you’ve all seen. Here now was a simple thing to see, easily understood. One team was, just, ahead of all the rest. My kids had fewer questions after that.

For anyone watching the first two and a half games of this Astros series, sans context, it would be easy to think these teams are nearly equally matched. The Mariners rotation, which I have taken ample opportunity to savage on multiple occasions, was largely effective against a terrific Houston offense. The Mariner bats, facing a comically talented rotation, were scraping out just enough runs. Through two games, and six innings, the teams were at a stalemate.

And then, they weren’t. Mike Leake seemingly kept throwing the same pitches, at the same velocity, in the same places he had the previous six innings, but now they weren’t being missed. They were getting hit, and hard. Nick Vincent had the same experience. Dee Gordon and Mitch Haniger were misplaying balls and suddenly the Astros were better than the Mariners, and by quite a bit.

The baseball season will do that. Every team is good. Every player is an amazing blend of athleticism, skill, and work ethic. Sure, just like bobsledding you’ll have some poor group form an underfunded country, in baseball’s case we’ll say the Reds, who even a moment’s glance says does not belong out there. But by and large it feels like the margins are so close, the difference between victory and defeat so small as to be nearly invisible at times. The nature of the sport is such that can very easily fool yourself into thinking a baseball season is just millions of coin flips, with randomness the One True God.

But just because the baseline is otherworldly excellence, does not mean it’s also the ceiling. All these players are so good, and so talented. But the win/loss record superimposes two teams’ journey down the same path. Over that journey, one always separates itself from the rest, even if it’s only by hundredths of a second. There’s always a winner, so there’s always a loser.

Go M’s.

Breakfast & Biz 4/18/18 – Back up back stop

This won’t matter unless it does and then it very much will

The next twelve hours or so, at least as it concerns the Mariners, are going to be all about what the Mariners do with Ben Gamel and Ichiro. That ground is going to be pretty saturated, and I’ve already written a few things on the Mariners left field situation, so instead I want to pivot this morning to the next roster crunch coming down the line: Backup catcher.

At the beginning of the season, all conversations and projections pointed to Mike Marjama as the man slated to back up Mike Zunino. He is an incredibly easy and fun player to root for. His decision to open up publicly about his struggles with an eating disorder represent a still fledgling effort by athletes to fight back against dogmatic and hurtful concepts of masculinity, athleticism, toughness, and courage. More than anything he does on a baseball field, Marjama’s efforts to lead in this manner make him a winner, and a person worthy of our admiration.

The problem is, well, he’s not a great catcher. He can hit a bit. His wRC+ in his last three minor league stints in Tampa were 142, 120, and 127. But, and here’s where the constraints of my time and this series have to fall upon your grace, as I have no intention of making gifs or screenshots, his defense is leaving a lot to be desired. You can choose to believe or not believe me when I tell you I know a few people inside the game of baseball whose opinions I value, and each of them has, in turn, rated Marjama’s defense as varying degrees of “not good.”

Enter David Freitas. A waiver pickup last August from Atlanta, Freitas has a similar, if slightly inferior, offensive track record to Marjama. In the tiny sample size of 2018 Freitas’ bat has outperformed Marjama’s, but that should be given very little consideration. No, the real meat here is that Freitas, at least from those I’ve talked to and my own layman’s eye, is the better defensive catcher of the two, and not by a fractional amount. The framing, the pitch blocking, and overall, somewhat unmeasurable “command” of the dish all seem to favor Freitas.

Want more? Well sure. In his first start of the year James Paxton, very much the Mariners’ Ace, was caught by Mike Marjama. In every one of his subsequent three starts it has been David Freitas. That could be nothing, but typically a team’s best pitcher is the one who gets to choose his catcher, and James is definitely the Mariners’ best pitcher.

It’s probably a small gap, but taken as a whole, a gap does appear to exist. David Freitas and Mike Marjama are the same age, with similar minor league track records and offensive skillsets. The largest difference between the two is defense, where Freitas appears to hold the advantage. Marjama was the presumptive opening day backup, but their play on the field makes me comfortable recommending and hoping that it’s Freitas that remains in Seattle, whenever Mike Zunino makes his return. And may that be soon.

Go M’s.

Breakfast & Biz 4/16/18 – The Fulcrum

like a hinge but more literary sounding

I’m a bit of a simple man, I will admit that. I like loud movies, the cannons in the 1812 Overture, used to (cringe) DVR Michael Irvin’s JACKED UP segment once upon a time, and once got emotional at the end of Armageddon. Take this in mind when I say, while acknowledging that not quite 10% of the season has passed, the Mariners season may just be defined by their closer, Edwin Diaz.

Through thirteen games, the Mariners have been a boardwalk cartoonist’s version of what we thought they would be. The offense, even largely missing Nelson Cruz and entirely missing Mike Zunino, has the 4th highest wRC+ in the game. Robinson Cano has an on base percentage of .537. Mitch Haniger’s next bad at bat will be his first. Even the April Iceman, Kyle Seager, has a 155 wRC+. An offense with an assumed range of above average to very good has largely found its ceiling. They may not (they will not) be this good all year, but if/when Zunino returns they will have a long, deep lineup, capable of punishing mistakes, and grinding through arms.

The pitching, however, has been atrocious. Even with Felix Hernandez’s quality six inning start yesterday Seattle starters are barely averaging five innings a start, and have the second highest FIP in baseball. Marco Gonzales has gotten through the fourth inning once this year. Mike Leake is walking a tight rope with no net, and the rope is on fire, and there are crocodiles down below.

A team with a great offense and terrible pitching, loosely, abstracts to a .500 team. That’s what a lot of us have thought the Mariners were since about November of last year. Indeed thus far they have scored exactly as many runs as they have allowed, one of the most .500 things a team can do, when you paint their story by number. Within that, however, lies a pivot point, a fulcrum, and it is a viciously talented wisp of a closer from Puerto Rico.

Diaz’s start to the season has been the pop this team needed. Always talented and capable, he has harnessed his fastball command for the team’s first two weeks, and when he does there are exactly zero relievers in baseball clearly better than him. If, and it is a huge if, this represents the next evolutionary leap in Diaz’s career the Mariners as wild card contenders is not the long shot it was at the beginning of the season. Already, the Mariners have won four games by two or fewer runs. A change in just one, or heaven help us, two of those outcomes and the season’s positive start lags into the “Same Old Mariners” zone. You know of what I speak.

The Astros are in town for four games. The Astros are a better team than the Mariners. They will have the starting pitching advantage in three of four games. They have, regardless of early season numbers, the better lineup. They may not have a better closer. The Mariners’ 2018 can bend and twist many ways, and that will go through the right arm of Edwin Diaz.

Go M’s.

Breakfast & Biz 4/13/18 – The Cursed 7

She was a witch!

Left field for the Seattle Mariners is a cursed position. It began in 1977, when the team’s first left fielder, Steve Braun, refused to allow a bedraggled, haggish woman into his home one stormy night, and she turned out to be a powerful enchantress. She swore that day that the Mariners would never have a stable, productive left field, and that curse has held, nigh on these many years.

Still, at least until the MBAs free us from the tyranny of traditional positional labels and all baseball players become Efficient, and can play all positions, the Mariners are stuck needing a left fielder. The start of the 2018 season has played out similarly to all the rest. Ben Gamel, who had the temerity to fashion a blade out of BABIP in the first half of 2017 and challenged the curse, was quickly punished, both with a horrendous second half last year, and a strained oblique in the Spring.  Ichiro, aged old conqueror of other lands, has gainfully and bravely attempted to lift the curse, but his magic is near out, and at his years he appears simply overwhelmed.

The Mariners best chance at producing a hero worthy of left field in 2018 may just be Guillermo Heredia. Heredia, like Gamel, suffered from a poor second half in 2017, particularly in September. However, unlike Gamel, the fall off is easily attributable to injury, as it was revealed after the season that the 27-year old Cuban needed shoulder surgery to repair “numerous partial dislocations.” I have partially dislocated my shoulder. Eating cereal was a challenge. I presume playing major league baseball would be harder.

Now healthy, Heredia is off to a fast start this year. He’s showing the mild pop in his bat he did when healthy at the beginning of last year and, with Dee Gordon still learning center field on the fly, may have an argument as the team’s best overall defensive outfielder. His bat leaves him very little room for error, and the odds of his wRC+ ever finishing above league average are fairly slim, but he does enough other things well enough he deserves, at minimum, equal consideration whenever Gamel returns from injury.

The Mariners are, at least for a little while, going to carry five outfielders. Three of them are being thrown into the maw of the Saarlac Pit that is the Seattle Mariners Left Field position. Jerry Dipoto is on record saying that Gamel will get most of the playing time, despite a track record and projection that does little to differentiate him from Guillermo Heredia.

So, wait, is that a curse then, or just questionable allocation of resources from a franchise with a long history of same? Ah, well.

Go M’s.

Breakfast & Biz 4/12/18 – Something to Break

LIMP BIZKIT (1999)

I’m in a bit of a rush this morning, so this already intentionally spartan series will be extra light today. My apologies, but also, I do not apologize.

Perhaps in the end all the off days, as frustrating as they’ve felt, have been a blessing for this team. They have allowed for as few games as possible missed by Ben Gamel, Nelson Cruz, and Mike Zunino. With April’s final off day happening today, the reinforcements are arriving precisely when the Mariners need them most.

It’s a credit to the team they survived the opening stretch without calamity. A poor start doesn’t doom a season, but can make it very difficult for all but the most talented teams to overcome. You’ll recall that last year’s team, after a 2-8 start, went 76-76 the rest of the way. Flip that start around, and the Mariners win 84 games.

It’s still incredibly early, but something is about to break, and we’re going to learn a lot about the 2018 Mariners between now and May 1. They are about to play seventeen straight games, and the next ten against the AL West. They will use a fifth starter for the first time this year. Their bullpen depth will be tested in a way it has not up til now. There will be days when Edwin Diaz will throw two straight, or three of four days, and Scott Servais’ ability to weigh the short and long term will be heavily tested.

Breaks, of course can be good or bad. What the Mariners need, what they have desperately needed for so, so, so long, is to have a good player or two turn into one of the best players at his position. I just mentioned Edwin Diaz, and it’s not an accident. The Mariners may very well be on the verge of having one of the best relief pitchers alive.

Diaz’s stuff, of course, has always been plus plus. But youth and/or consistent command has largely held him back from true greatness. Major league hitters are very, very good and very, very smart. If they don’t think you can throw strikes, they will wait you out. Now, at least thus far, Diaz’s command has been present almost the entire year. The results are comical. He has a 66.7 K%. He has not walked a man, or allowed a run. Only on Opening Day did he seem threatened by the demons of youth, hitting two batters and balking the tying run into scoring position. Otherwise, he has been God’s Righteous Justice made manifest, and all have sinned.

The Mariners are 6-4. They have staved off catastrophe, and are about to get far more healthy. To surprise, they need breaks. They may just be on the verge of getting a big one at the back end of their bullpen. But seventeen straight days of games will test them, and teach us a lot. The season is about to kick off in earnest, and we’re going to learn a whole lot. Something’s about to break.

Go M’s.

Breakfast & Biz 4/11/18 – The Work

Seattle’s silent superstar

The records are getting close to falling now. First, sometime in late July or early August, it will be most WAR at the position in franchise history. Or maybe it will be games at 2B. They will fall in close succession, and they will herald the coming of a blizzard of accomplishment and achievement that, when cleared, will cement what has been true since before he ever stepped foot on a field in a Mariner uniform: Robinson Cano is the greatest second baseman to ever play baseball in Seattle.

It has gone by so fast, and seemingly, so quietly. For a man coming from New York, with a contract worth nearly the amount we all vilified Alex for taking, so long ago, his presence is largely felt, rather than heard. He came with the jeers of Yankee fans at his heels, whispers of complacency, bordering on laziness. His second year here, tormented by a body and spirit in agony, his slow start led to the team’s first base coach blasting him in the media. “The worst third-place, everyday hitter I’ve ever seen.” In response, Cano was largely silent, until the season, when his official spokesperson, his bat, hit 39 home runs, the official statement on the matter.

Indeed, having been in Seattle for now nearly half of that massive contract, it is the stillness, and quietness, around Robinson Cano that marks him. Like his head at the plate, or the slow pause at second base on the turn, Robinson Cano himself seems to understand the idea of wasted motion and energy better than most. He is comported in the team’s clubhouse with a respect and status, for a roster often filled with players grasping desperately for the smallest amount of his success, borders on lordship. Whatever rumors of work ethic and effort that followed him here on poisoned tongues have long since washed away. “The Work” is one of baseball’s many equally revered and imprecise terms, and no one in Seattle puts in The Work like Robinson Cano.

Yesterday, Robinson Cano was fooled on a first pitch breaking ball. Out on his front foot just a touch, he would be easy for his hips to open early, his torso to turn, and his hands to guide his bat just millimeters higher than intended, rolling the ball over to second base. But Robinson Cano puts in The Work, and part of The Work is drilling to keep your hands, and weight, back. To slow down, and meet the ball where it’s at. Still head, still hands. Wait. Wait. Fire.

We say of other, more intimately beloved Mariners, “He is ours, and you cannot have him.” For Robinson Cano, soon if not now one of the ten greatest players to ever play here, and emphatically the greatest second baseman this franchise has ever known, it feels as though the current of that love has reversed. “The world lay before him, for his choosing. He chose us.” Halfway through our decade together we can’t say much more than, thanks Robbie.