Tuesday, July 26, 2011


There is a lingering mysteriousness about losing streaks that transcends the simple, prosaic string of "L's" that accumulate ominously downward in the schedule column. This mystery, this strange allure, operates much in the same way that we are fascinated by those car wrecks that occasionally materialize on the side of the road. Despite the fact that the end result is plainly obvious, there is some odd fascination with imagining just what happened.

Baseball, with its longer season, has more opportunities for such strangely alluring pileups. And some seasons seem to have more of these odd clusters of futility than others (we looked at that a bit earlier this year, when the Florida Marlins took a precipitous tumble in June).

Now it's the Seattle Mariners. The M's have been the focus of much neo-sabe confuffulation over the past several seasons, beginning in 2009, when their purported "defensive strategy" led them to an 85-win season that was nearly ten games above what the ratio of their runs scored to runs allowed suggested.

In 2010, they fell apart and lost 101 games.

This year, with five starting pitchers performing well (Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, the solid-but-often-injured Eric Bedard, Doug Fister, Jason Vargas, and rookie Michael Pineda), the M's edged into the pennant race in June. As of July 6, they were at .500 (43-43) and were only 2 1/2 games out of first place in AL West.

While no one had really gotten on the M's bandwagon (their offense continued to be the most anemic in the AL), there were still some rumblings about the possible efficacy of General Manager Jack Zduriencik's "pitchin'n'defense" (not to be confused with "chicken'n'waffles") approach to "team building."

What happened on July 6? Well, the M's lost--and then proceeded to start a string where they played a series of good teams, including the four best teams in the AL East. Our chart, broken down by month and by record of opposition, provides a stark picture.

This is what's sometimes referred to as "finding one's level." The M's starting pitching had been good enough to keep the team in close games with good teams over the first three months of the season. They were within range of first place because the other two top contenders in the AL West (Rangers and Angels) were struggling.

Things sort out across a season, but they rarely do so with such a dramatic certainty as what's displayed above.

And what's the "why" for all this? It's pretty simple. The M's starters hit the wall. Over the past sixteen games, they have a 6.12 ERA. Eric Bedard got injured (again...someone won a Seattle-based lottery by picking the exact date that he landed on the disabled list) but his replacement, Blake (Bleak) Beavan, actually pitched better than any of his fellow M's starters over this stretch. Thanks (again) to David Pinto's Day-By-Day Database, we can look at a snapshot of the M's pitcher stats for this time frame.

Note that HR total. 23 HRs in 16 games. Doesn't seem like much, but if that pace were maintained for a season it would extrapolate to 233 for the year. That's a big part of the problem.

What also gives pause is that the M's haven't really even been unlucky in the midst of this. Usually such losing streaks involve a cluster of one-run losses. The M's have only lost two one-run games in this stretch.

Now, with all that said, the fact still remains that the M's are still doing better than they did last year, and these pitchers are better than what they've shown in the past three weeks. It's not certain that Jack Z. has any magic formula, but he does understand that his ballpark rewards a good pitching staff if he puts an athletic defense behind them. The problem is that such an approach often leads to sub-par offense, and in such a scenario it only takes a short flame-out from the pitchers to create...well, just what you're seeing by the side of road at this very moment.