On the last day of the season, Angie Mentink of Root Sports mentioned the similarity of the Mariners in 2012 to the A’s in 2011. In 2011, the Athletics went 74-88 with a Pythagorean Record of 77-85. This year, the Mariners went 75-87 with a Pythagorean Record of 77-85. So obviously the similarity is there, but what was implicit in the mentioning was the possibility of the Mariners making the jump the Athletics did this season (this isn’t an attack or even a rebuttal of Mentink, I only mention her because she brought up the comparison, which inspired the article). The A’s had a Pythagorean Record of 92-70 this year, but are the Mariners in a position to be a serious competitor in the division and possibly even win it next year? Let’s compare the two rosters:
The Athletics had 7 players that played 67 games or more (that includes Chris Carter, if you want to up the number up to 100, they had 4 such players, with Jonny Gomes at 99 and Brandon Moss at 84 games. George Kottaras had a 104 wRC + in 27 games after being acquired from the Brewers) with an above league average wRC + (which is park adjusted). The Mariners had 3 such players (Franklin Gutierrez was above league average in 40 games, and Casper Wells sat at 99 wRC +). If you discount those with a .300 BABIP or more, it takes out 3 Athletics and no Mariners, but the A’s still have 1 more above league average hitter. As a team, the Athletics had a walk rate of 1.1% higher, and a strikeout rate of .9% lower. Oakland also had a .025 higher ISO than the Mariners to go along with Oakland’s much lower ground-ball rate and a higher line drive rate. Both teams hit a similar amount of infield fly-balls and Oakland had a slightly better HR/FB %.
The A’s had 14 players with an above average UZR while the Mariners had 12. According to Baseball Reference’s DRS (or D-WAR), Brendan Ryan saved nearly twice as many runs as the Athletics shortstop (and DRS leader) Cliff Pennington. Oakland had just 2 players with at least one defensive “win”, while the Mariners had 3 (and a much better peak guy with Ryan). However, the Athletics had a lot of guys worth 1 to 2 runs above average, leading to 13 players with positive DRS (the Mariners had 8). In all, the Mariners were given just 1.2 wins defensively according to UZR (Oakland had 4). It seems that while they had some elite defenders this year (Ryan, Ichiro, Ackley), they also had some really poor defenders (Montero, Jaso, Thames). Michael Saunders was also penalized by both major defensive metrics, which I found surprising (and perhaps even wrong. Saunders reputation is as a good defender, and was given positive ratings before this year. I am not sure if he is gotten worse).
The Mariners had 6 players with above average baserunning value according to Fangraphs. The A’s had 13, although many of them were by not much at all. If you set the baseline at 5 runs above average, the Mariners had 4 and the A’s have 5 (with one at exactly .5). The A’s still have all 4 (or 5) of those players, while the Mariners no longer have Ichiro Suzuki and another one of them is Chone Figgins who is obviously a disaster in other ways (and may not be with the team next year anyway). The Mariners had 8 players with speed scores over 5.0 (including Ichiro and Figgins), while the A’s had 6.
If you want to make it simpler and just use stolen bases, the A’s had 5 guys steal at least 10 bases, including Coco Crisp, who stole 39. The Mariners leader was Michael Saunders, who had 21. Ichiro was second with 15, while Seager, Ackley, and Ryan all had over 10. So slight advantage to the A’s there as well.
If the problem the Mariners have is that they have put too much emphasis on speed and defense, then they have a funny way of showing it, as they look like a slower team that the Athletics (and a worse defending team), who relied heavily on the home run offensively.
On the mound, the Athletics were better overall, slightly above average at 96 FIP -, while the Mariners were slightly below league average with a 103 FIP -.
Mariners pitching averaged a full MPH (92.1 to 91.1 MPH) better than A’s pitchers. The difference between the team’s starters was less (.3 MPH), but the Mariners still held a slight advantage. The bullpen was the big difference, as the A’s averaged 92.3 MPH, while the Mariners averaged 94.6 MPH (thanks in large part to Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor, but they are not the only hard throwers in Seattle’s bullpen). Mariners relievers used this velocity to strikeout 23.5% of the batters they faced, while the Athletics struck out 22.2%. As stated many times before, the Mariners strength this year was their bullpen. It was really good (they also walked .2% of batters less than the A’s bullpen). The Mariners rotation had an identical amount of walks (in percentage terms) and had a strikeout rate of about a percent better. However, they had more problems with the long ball that the Athletics simply didn’t have. As the ground-ball rates were almost identical, the Mariners mysteriously suffered from a HR/FB % problem. For all the talk about Safeco, and moving the fences in, the Mariners starters had a higher HR/FB % than 7 other teams, 3 of them non-playoff teams.
On one hand, the Mariners could say that their rotation was better down the stretch as it ditched Hector Noesi, but on the other hand, the return of Kevin Millwood or Hisashi Iwakuma is not guaranteed (if desired, especially in the former’s case), and who knows what you are going to get from Blake Beavan next season.
You could certainly make the case that the Mariners team is somewhat similar to the A’s this year. They still need at least a couple of more hitters, and they have to make sure the rotation doesn’t get away from them. The bullpen and defense gives them a chance if they are able to either hit or run more. There will be work to do this off-season, and they will have to compete not only with Oakland, but with a tough Texas Rangers team (and don’t forget about the Angels, who were good this year as well).