Mariners playoffs: Seattle contending despite run differential

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The Mariners’ 4-2 win against the Rays on Tuesday evening was downright boring by their standards: There was no comeback in the late inning or a tightrope walk on the bullpen, and the lead from two runs qualified as the blowout of the 2021 season so far advanced. But a few more ho-hum wins like that and Seattle could find itself in a position it hasn’t occupied for many years: in the middle of the playoff picture.

The Mariners haven’t hit the postseason since 2001, earning them the dubious accolade of having the longest post-season active drought in major North American sports. In the 19 years between Seattle’s last playoff appearance and this year, the team has had a dozen lost seasons, including two campaigns with 101 losses in ’08 and ’10.

Every other club has made the playoffs at least twice during that time, and 27 have made the postseason at least three times. Thirteen different teams have won a World Series championship and none have competed in a row. In an era of true equality, time and again, the Mariners are the ones who are left without a chair when the music stops playing.

Seattle’s surge over the past month and a half has put the team just two games behind the A’s for second wildcard spot, but you wouldn’t know because of FanGraphs playoff odds, which give the Mariners just a 3.9% chance in the postseason after the win on Tuesday. Baseball Reference is only slightly more bullish at 5.9%. In comparison, FanGraphs gives the Yankees, who are currently level with Seattle, a whopping 52.8% chance of getting into the playoffs, while the Blue Jays’ odds are at 38.1%.

The reason for this great inequality is not prejudice on the east coast, but one that you have brought up several times throughout the season: Seattle’s running difference, a supposedly “true” reflection of the caliber of a team. The Mariners were beaten this season with 48 runs – as many as the Tigers and worse than the Cubs, Nationals and Marlins.

To be outperformed as a whole does not usually mean sustainable success. Modern front offices ultimately view player acquisitions as buying runs, and allowing more runs than you get over the course of the season would appear to be an obstacle to long-term success. That logic makes sense and is usually true, but the Mariners exceeded those expected results by setting a remarkable 23-10 record in one-run games this year.

There’s no secret to having continued success in one-run games, but a reliable bullpen is as good a starting point as any other. Seattle’s Relievers, a group of mostly anonymous pitchers with relatively low salaries, have been an absolute blessing this season so far. The group ranks third in the majors in fWAR (4.7) and seventh in odds added (3.61), and has just moved up by landing Diego Castillo in a Tampa Bay trade.

While the bullpen was outstanding in crunch time, Seattle’s offense was up to the situation in those moments too. For the season, the Mariners rank 28th in base percentage (0.299) and are linked to the Cubs for the second highest strikeout rate (26.0%) in the majors. Still, the Seattle Hitters blow the competition away when it matters most, beating .285 with a 138 wRC + in high leverage – that’s 19 points more than the second best team (Phillies). The Astros, the second best AL team, has a 113 wRC + in high leverage situations.

If this tune sounds familiar to Mariners fans, it should. The 2018 team went from 89 to 73 despite having a -34 barrel differential. Just like this season, Seattle had a hot streak of individual victories earlier in the year to stay in the hunt and surpass preseason expectations. Those Mariners defeated the Giants 3-2 on July 25 to improve to 61-41 and remain in sole possession of second wildcard spot, but the team faded from then on, leaving the rest of the 28-32 at 28-32 Way to miss the playoffs by eight games.

From the opening day this season through July 25, the Mariners were 27-13 in one-run games. From that point on, they had a 9-8 record in such games – hardly a debacle, but a relative crash to earth after an almost unprecedented hot streak.

Will the one-run luck run out again this time? Mariners fans will be quick to point out that the ticket to the playoffs is prizes, not just a running total of runs. And while that is true, there is little precedent for what Seattle is trying to achieve.

July 9, 2021;  Seattle, Washington, USA;  Seattle Mariners designated hitter Mitch Haniger (17) watches his Grand Slam home run against the Los Angeles Angels during the eighth inning at T-Mobile Park.

Since the wildcard era began in 1995 (and without the expanded playoff field from last season), only three teams have made the postseason with a negative run difference: the 1997 Giants, 2005 Padres and 2007 Diamondbacks. Neither of these three teams won the pennant, despite Arizona making the NLCS that year (oddly enough, the Diamondbacks were actually number 1 in the NL in the playoffs as all four qualifying teams had between 85 and 90 wins).

If the Mariners can do the incredible, they will make history in the process. This team has obvious flaws that would prohibit them from doing so – most of which have been overcome by this point – but a better game will likely be required for the Mariners to catch Oakland.

Something has to give way in the next two months: either the statistical anomaly of Seattle’s one-off magic or a playoff drought almost old enough to drink. Given the history of the teams being outperformed, the chances of Seattle making a run for a place with wild cards aren’t good. On the other hand, the chances of missing the playoffs for nearly two decades aren’t either.

The Mariners shouldn’t be where they are today, and yet here they are, stuck in pursuit of a price that has eluded them for most of this century. The best way to move forward over the next 54 games is to ignore the weight of the franchise’s recent failures and try to end the losing streak. As clichéd as it sounds, Seattle will carry on like it did all season: one game – and one run – at a time.

More MLB coverage:
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• How the baseball super team can still be stopped

• The chaotic trading period has changed the game
• MLB trading deadline winners and losers

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