Mariners' offensive outburst overdue

June, 3, 2012
6/03/12
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Another game, another double-digit Mariners outburst on the scoreboard? This makes it three in their past four games, and while it’s way too soon to talk about the Mariners offense terrorizing anybody, after scoring 31 runs in their last two games in Texas and then 14 in their first two in Chicago, things are certainly taking a turn for the better in terms of Mariners offense.

In Saturday's 10-8 victory over the White Sox, Ichiro Suzuki ripped two home runs, Michael Saunders avenged his Friday night game-losing error to rap out four hits (including a homer) and Justin Smoak’d his team-leading 10th shot into the cheap seats.

Has sad-sack Seattle suddenly busted out to become a slugging powerhouse? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. After all, one of the benefits of breaking out on offense is that you get the twin benefits of getting to take your chances against the bottom of a bullpen -- giving your batters more opportunities to hit against guys who aren’t the best starters, relievers or anything in between -- and you force opposing managers to use multiple relievers on consecutive days ... and not every fireman has his A-game working without rest. If anything, in the age of the seven-man bullpen, your chances of catching a reliever at less than his best improve, as busy skippers run through every guy they’ve got.

So how are the Mariners doing it? It isn’t simply a matter of finally coaxing Ichiro out of the third slot and having him bat leadoff, although getting his limited power output out of a slot usually associated with cashing in baserunners with extra-base sock can’t hurt. His reputation for incomparable batsmanship aside, Ichiro has only plated 11.9 percent of his baserunners, behind four other regulars plus Alex Liddi, John Jaso and Casper Wells. This isn’t a recent development -- last year, Ichiro ranked behind six other regulars, not to mention Milton Bradley and Jack Cust, both of whom didn’t last the year in Seattle because they didn’t do enough on offense to outstrip their assorted liabilities.

It also isn’t a matter of putting Chone Figgins back on the bench or getting Mike Carp and Miguel Olivo back from the disabled list, or even of riding the hot hand and sticking Kyle Seager in the No. 3 hole, although all of those are good things. Certainly, the Mariners are also enjoying the benefit of seeing Smoak and Dustin Ackley get on track and deliver the way that they’re expected to, especially relative to expectations for a pair of former top prospects. All of these things are helpful, all worthwhile, but perhaps not all crucial, not by themselves.

Instead, perhaps the Mariners are benefiting most lately from the three of the most important words in performance: location, location and location. That’s because getting away from Safeco Field is important, not least this year. Exacerbated by early-season injuries? Perhaps. And what about the Mariners getting dragooned into yet another MLB junket to cash in on the bounty of letting Opening Day occur in Japan -- which, considering MLB’s nine-digit payoff from licensing and more from Japan, has its incentives? Whatever the reasons, the Mariners' hitting rates at home are beyond awful: just .193/.278/.305 in their triple-slash stats.

After Saturday’s four-pack of clouts off Gavin Floyd in the Cell, the Mariners have hit 39 homers on the road in 33 games to the 12 they’ve managed in their 22 contests in front of the home folks. They’re now slugging .423 on the road, better than 100 points higher than at Safeco.

How unlikely, improbably, and unsustainably awful is the Mariners’ .584 team OPS at home? It would be the lowest home OPS in the era of divisional play (1969 to the present) if it lasted. Only two teams have ever finished a full season below .600 in OPS, the 1972 Padres (.586) and the ’72 Rangers (.595) -- not a Padres team playing in Petco, and no Astros team playing in the infamous old Astrodome managed it. These are raw and unadjusted OPS marks, of course, and both the Pads and the Rangers were pre-designated hitter.

However, unlike this year’s early-season pleas for fence-shifting in Miami, that’s just the way it is: The Mariners play in a pitcher’s park, and they’ve long since gotten used to it, because it has been true, year after year. Inevitably, they’re going to go home, and the bats will cool off -- somewhat, but not all the way down to a sub-.600 OPS. The Mariners’ home woes are unsustainably awful, unless they decide to put Figgins back in the everyday lineup or the like.

When the Mariners get back to Seattle on Friday to host the Dodgers, Padres and Giants in the latest spin with interleague entertainment, we’ll see if they bring their hitting gloves back with them. But even with Safeco’s well-earned rep as a pitcher’s park, if one thing is sure, you can probably bet that they will.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Yoenis CespedesJohn Rieger/US PresswireNow that he's back, Yoenis Cespedes must be happy to see third base, right?

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