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Analysis: How are the Mariners pulling off this franchise-best 7-1 start?

UPDATED: Thu., April 4, 2019, 6:28 p.m.

Seattle’s Tim Beckham,  Mallex Smith, Domingo Santana and Mitch Haniger, left to right, celebrate after the Mariners beat the Los Angeles Angels 2-1 on Tuesday  in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Seattle’s Tim Beckham, Mallex Smith, Domingo Santana and Mitch Haniger, left to right, celebrate after the Mariners beat the Los Angeles Angels 2-1 on Tuesday in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

CHICAGO – Maybe the Seattle Mariners should have tried this whole “step back” plan a long time ago. It seems to have yielded better early results than in the seasons when they actually believed they were putting together a roster that could make a run for the postseason.

The Mariners have had good starts to seasons in the history of their organization, though it often feels like that was rarely the case. The 6-2 start in 2009 was a decade ago.

But there has never been a start to a season like this in franchise history.

It started with a quick two-game series sweep of the A’s in Tokyo, which now feels like a month ago. It was followed about a week later with taking three of four from the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox. It’s a series that easily could have been a four-game sweep if not for the cranky lat muscle in closer Hunter Strickland’s throwing shoulder, and his unwillingness to admit the issue while trying to close out Friday night’s game.

That was followed by a two-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels – an American League West rival that has seemed to give Seattle issues over the past few seasons.

A 2-0 start and a 5-1 homestand give Seattle a 7-1 record going into this seven-game road trip, which features three games with the White Sox and four with the Royals. After a staccato start to their schedule, the Mariners get to play for 17 straight days starting on Friday, thanks to Thursday’s postponement in Chicago.

There has a been a fair amount of excitement from fans with this scorching start. Given how much the Mariners’ front office talked about the 2019 season being a step back season as part of their adjusted offseason plans to prepare the roster for 2021 and beyond, the expectations, at least externally, weren’t high going into Opening Day.

And now?

World Series!!! WOOOOO!!!

OK, that sentiment might stem from the lunatic fringe of Mariners nation. Beyond pure elation, there are all sorts of mindsets:

Cautious optimism: They want this to be better than expected and think it might be. They want to believe, but can’t commit fully just yet.

Reluctant hope: Maybe this team could be similar to the A’s of last season and piece together a playoff season that few people believed was possible. Hey, it could happen.

Unwavering skepticism: Yeah, this start has been fun to watch and maybe something is there. But these are the Mariners and until they prove it on the field for a season, they get the side-eye treatment.

Earned pessimism: The Mariners cannot be trusted. They’ve done nothing to prove otherwise. And while these eight games have been a surprise, there is no reason to believe that the ugly regression and reality of another losing season won’t soon follow.

Really, there is nothing wrong with any of these mindsets or forming a combination of the them or your own. That’s the beauty of being a baseball fan. The game is all welcoming.

It’s fair to say that the Mariners won’t keep this pace of winning for an entire season. Winning seven out of every eight games would basically be a 141-21 record. The marathon that is the baseball season features highs and lows. The Mariners have started on a high. A low will have to come eventually.

In these eight games, four expected aspects of this team were evident in almost every game. That the Mariners have won all but one of them speaks to the two positives being more prevalent and overcoming the two negatives more often than not.

The four things:

• Home run and extra-base power

• Improved approach at the plate

• Below-average-to-poor defense

• Bullpen inexperience and inconsistency

These characteristics were first noticed in spring training, arose in the first game of the season and remained apparent in the games that have followed. It’s unlikely that the positives will disappear or the negatives be completely remedied in the coming months.

Yes, the Mariners have played two more games than everyone else other than the A’s, a discrepancy that will be evened out soon. Still, Seattle has bashed 17 homers in eight games, including a homer in every game. In this homer-happy era of “elevate and celebrate,” Seattle seems to be fitting in quite well. In the Mariners’ first eight games last season, they hit seven homers.

With the exception of Dee Gordon, Mallex Smith and utility player Dylan Moore, the remainder of the position player group all has the potential to belt at least 20 home runs, with players like Jay Bruce, Edwin Encarnacion, Domingo Santana, Ryon Healy and possibly Mitch Haniger as 30-plus-homer hitters. Seattle made T-Mobile Park look homer-friendly on the homestand.

But it goes beyond homers, it’s also extra-base hits. Of Seattle’s 73 hits on the season, 36 are extra-base hits, including the 18 homers. That translates into a gaudy .520 slugging percentage. It’s a big reason why they’ve scored six or more runs in all but two of their games this season. Obviously, that’s not sustainable. The Red Sox led the majors with a .453 slugging percentage last season. Still, this is a team that should be among the league leaders in homers.

Part of the early power surge stems from the mature at-bats. The “control the zone” mantra of manager Scott Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto hasn’t disappeared. It was just mildly ignored by more than a few hitters last season. In the roster reshaping, they brought in players with a better working knowledge of the strike zone and a more discernible approach when hunting pitches to swing at. Seattle has drawn 36 walks in eight games and has a .356 on-base percentage. A year ago, Seattle had 24 walks in the first eight games with a .327 OBP.

“We aren’t talking about taking walks,” Servais said. “We are just talking about getting your pitch to hit, and understanding there are certain areas of the strike zone where you are looking for balls based on how a certain pitcher pitches, and taking your swing into account, and how you are going to attack this guy. It’s better when you are in hitters’ counts and guys are waiting for their pitch. We aren’t talking about the walk. That’s what happens when you shrink the zone and make them come to you.”

Good at-bats can be contagious.

“It feels a lot like when I was with the Indians in 2017 – you didn’t want to be the guy to go up there and not have the quality at-bat,” Bruce said. “I think it’s a great. We have a lot of guys that are very competitive in that sense and that’s awesome for the team. It drives everyone in the right way.”

And now those not-so-good traits of the Mariners thus far.

The defense is going to be a problem. Seattle played its first error-free game of the season on Tuesday in the 2-1 win over the Angels. If the Mariners hadn’t been so clean in the field, they don’t win the game. They’ve committed 13 errors this season. Even if you take out Moore’s three-error mishap from Friday’s game, 10 errors would still be too many.

And yet it isn’t unexpected. With the exception of Gordon at second base and possibly Haniger in right field, the Mariners are rolling out a lineup that is filled with players that are considered below-average defenders.

To be fair, there are several players not playing their natural positions. Healy has been forced to step in at third with Kyle Seager, a strong defensive player, is out for two months with hand surgery. The first basemen – Bruce, Encarnacion and Daniel Vogelbach – are basically all designated hitters that have to share time at first base like a penance. Bruce came up as an outfielder and is still converting to the position, while Encarnacion was basically a designated hitter for the past five seasons.

Santana had never played left field until this season, spending most of his professional career in right field. He has the potential to improve quickly. Catcher Omar Narvaez and new backup Tom Murphy are not considered to be strong defensive players in terms of receiving/framing, blocking or throwing.

Even the speedy Smith in center has issues with his throwing arm and initial routes and jumps on balls.

It’s not ideal for a pitching staff that doesn’t strike out a ton of batters and pitches to contact.

“We certainly have areas of growth there,” Servais said. “We knew it was going to be a challenge for us early on with our infield defense. It has been.”

The hope is that the more Healy, Santana and the first basemen play and work on the defense with infield coach Perry Hill, it will improve.

“Perry Hill is one of the best in the game for a long time, and he takes it very personal,” Servais said. “Perry was the first one in here this morning watching video, and we’re going to continue to work and get better.”

As for the bullpen, the return of veteran right-hander Anthony Swarzak provided an immediate lift as he picked up a big save in his Mariners debut on Tuesday night. But he isn’t going to fix everything. The bullpen has walked 17 batters and given up four homers in 28 innings pitched.

With Strickland sidelined for two months with a strained lat, the Mariners are going closer by committee for now. Four pitchers – Nick Rumbelow, Chasen Bradford, Roenis Elias and Swarzak – notched saves in the last four games of the homestand. That random usage late in games could continue though Swarzak and Zac Rosscup have the most experience and could emerge as more consistent options. Elias has grown into a reliable reliever. With a consistent arm slot and more efficiency with his pitches in the strike zone, he’s found success. Rookie right-hander Matt Festa has been impressive early in the season.

It’s not so much about the late innings coverage. The issues in the middle innings – sixth and seventh – have to be covered. Marco Gonzales saved a tired bullpen with his 8 1/3 innings on Tuesday and the preponderance of runs have provided plenty of cushion against mistakes. But with 17 games in 17 days, the bullpen will be tested. Expect relievers to shuffle back and forth from Triple-A Tacoma similar to two seasons ago while Dipoto scours the waiver wire and opposing teams’ farm systems for possibilities.

The first eight games have been a surprise.

Will the next 17 games be a reality check, a regression to the mean or more of the same?

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