'We have to be better': Mariners' lineup stifled during Opening Series

April 1st, 2024

SEATTLE -- It’s been a fit of the familiar for the Mariners through the first four games of 2024, and not for the favorable reasons.

Their pitching staff has been as advertised, even with paying for a pair of homers he surrendered in his season debut on Sunday afternoon. But their overhauled offense has looked eerily like the swing-and-miss-prone group from a year ago despite significant turnover.

Seattle punched out 10 times in its series finale against Boston en route to a 5-1 loss at T-Mobile Park, bringing its strikeout total on the young season to 45, third most in MLB behind only the Dodgers, who opened the season one week early in Korea, and the Pirates. Moreover, Seattle’s 32.8% K rate is MLB’s second highest, after ranking second-worst in the category last year, at 25.9%.

To be sure, it’s only one series, the chilly and windy conditions weren’t nearly as conducive for hitting as in Arizona and they were without for the final three games of the season-opening series, as the designated hitter recovers from back spasms.

Yet, the four-game split could’ve just as easily swung into a sweep had it not been for George Kirby’s scoreless effort in a 1-0 win on Friday and Julio Rodriguez’s walk-off heroics to cap a two-run 10th inning on Saturday.

“We have to be better than that,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said earlier this weekend. “If not, we won't have the season we're hoping to have. You're not going to win 1-0 every night. You've got to find a way to get the ball in play, and we're aware of it. The hitting coaches are talking about it. This is not what we did in Spring Training.”

Specifically, the Mariners were overwhelmed all weekend with a bevy of breaking balls from Boston -- a by-design tactic given Seattle’s struggles against secondary pitches last year. A sizable 51.6% of the pitches the Mariners saw against the Red Sox were non-fastballs, and overall, they slashed .178/.226/.271 (.497 OPS) in the four-game series.

Entering Sunday, no team had thrown more secondary pitches since Opening Day than the Red Sox, who threw fewer secondaries than all but one team in MLB last year. And the Guardians, who open a three-game series in Seattle on Monday, have spin specialists Triston McKenzie and Shane Bieber starting the first two games of the upcoming set.

Said Boston pitching coach Andrew Bailey: “When you look at the opponent we’re playing coming into the season and how they performed last year, knowing our pitchers’ strengths and what they can do and what they can fill the zone up with, yeah, I think it matched up well.”

Seattle has shown flashes of offensive momentum, and though it has come in short spurts, many such instances were manufactured by simply putting the ball in play -- which ties back to what players and coaches have preached since this new-look lineup was assembled over the winter.

“It hasn't been as pretty, but we're definitely working on it taking that into account,” Rodriguez said.

The Mariners’ lone run on Sunday was manufactured as such, when chipped a 79.5 mph soft single up the middle with two outs to score from third. And their tying run in Saturday’s comeback was via a chopping grounder by to the first baseman that allowed to flash his sneaky speed and slide around the catcher’s tag.

“We've got to be a little more stubborn and really buy into the plan,” said. “Early, I thought our at-bats were pretty good, then as the game went on, it wasn't as good. I think we're just settling in. It’s only been four games and we split the series, so we’re not too worried about it yet.”

Regardless of how Miller pitched, only three hits from Seattle’s offense while he was on the mound (and four total) was going to be difficult to overcome. But he also found himself in unfavorable counts, especially in the fourth, when he issued a leadoff walk to Triston Casas then a homer to Emmanuel Valdez in a 3-1 count after a check-swing the pitch prior went in favor of the batter.

Miller is just as prime of an example for baseball’s overall shift towards spin, given that his splitter, slider and sweeper flashed plus on Sunday. The overall results weren’t where he wanted, but his expanding arsenal has promise.