Bullpen inconsistency behind Mariners' recent troubles

May 25th, 2022

SEATTLE -- No matter how the Mariners were going to get to the finish line on Tuesday, it was going to be without their best reliever. Paul Sewald, after all, had pitched three days in a row.

Yet Sewald’s much-needed rest wasn’t the lone culprit in a 7-5 loss to last-place Oakland, but it did underscore that manager Scott Servais doesn’t have the bevy of leverage relievers that he did one year ago, a group that was largely why Seattle surged up the American League standings over the summer.

Many of those arms are either gone, injured or aren’t matching their 2021 production, and Tuesday’s game was among the most glaring cases of this ongoing issue -- mainly because Seattle’s bats strung together five runs against an Oakland lineup that statistically ranked tied for the third-worst in baseball by wins above replacement, per FanGraphs. Such results, on paper, would be favorable.

Seattle’s spiral began leading off the sixth, when Drew Steckenrider served up a game-tying homer to Elvis Andrus immediately after Julio Rodríguez’s three-run home run gave the Mariners a lead. Then, Anthony Misiewicz followed by giving up two more runs, and the Mariners found themselves in a hole from which they were unable to bounce back.

Misiewicz was also impacted by a two-out error by Jesse Winker in the seventh that directly led to the go-ahead run, while rookie right-hander George Kirby was also responsible for four runs despite racking up a career-high nine strikeouts.

“It’s guys getting away from their strengths and what really got us in good positions,” Servais said. “[Steckenrider and Misiewicz], as far as earning their stripes in the big leagues and in high-leverage roles, was being on the attack, going right after them, and that's not happening.”

There are multiple factors playing into Seattle’s prolonged slump, but the bullpen’s prolonged struggles have emerged front and center.

Mariners’ bullpen breakdown, 2022 vs. 2021 (MLB ranks)
WAR: 0.3 (23rd) | 7.0 (4th)
ERA: 4.37 (25th) | 3.88 (8th)
OPS: .716 (26th) | .679 (6th)
WHIP: 1.27 (16th-tie) | 1.22 (5th)
HR/9: 1.32 (30th) | 0.93 (4th)

Sewald has been superb, with a 2.40 ERA and 158 ERA+ (league average is 100), both better than his marks in a breakout 2021. But the rest of the group has been far more inconsistent.

Steckenrider, for example, was just as much of a high-leverage option last year, but after Tuesday he has a 5.65 ERA and opposing hitters are batting .333 against him. He’s struggled to harness his secondary pitches, made evident when he left three changeups at the top of the zone to Andrus, who finally made him pay.

On Monday, rookie Penn Murfee -- who’s earned more trust -- allowed two of his inherited runners from Marco Gonzales to score, then another when his leadoff walk came around. On Sunday, Andrés Muñoz, the 101-mph flamethrower, gave up a walk-off grand slam in Boston. The absence of Erik Swanson (currently sidelined with right elbow inflammation) looms large.

“A couple guys have been struggling in our bullpen,” Servais said. “We're trying to get them going. We thought we're going to find a way to hold it right there, and unfortunately, we didn't. That's the story of a lot of these tight games late, which was really what we were so good at throughout the season last year. We’ve gotten away from attacking the strike zone. We got behind in counts again tonight, and it really hurt us.”

Instead of advancing to 13-5 in games in which they’ve scored at least five, the Mariners dropped to 7-20 overall dating back to April 27, one day after their most recent win streak of at least two games -- and the date in which their late-spring funk unofficially began. That record, nearing one full month, is the worst in baseball in this stretch, and it followed an 11-6 start that had them in first place in the AL West.

For added context, the Mariners entered that April 27 game at Tampa Bay with 46.1% odds to reach the postseason, per FanGraphs, but that number had dropped to 7.4% entering Tuesday. Again, it’s a long season, but at 18-26, Seattle will now have to go 72-46 the rest of the way to match its 90-win season from last year.