James Paxton has led the way for the Mariners. Photo by Andy Witchger/Flickr

James Paxton has led the way for the Mariners. Photo by Andy Witchger/Flickr

So… the Mariners Are Actually Good?

Preparing for a summer of fun, meaningful baseball.

Imagine I’d told you on Opening Day that the following things would happen to the Mariners before June:

• Robinson Canó would break his hand and get suspended 80 games for using performance-enhancing drugs.

• Felix Hernandez would have an ERA well over 5.

• Ichiro would hit so poorly that he’d “retire” to take a front-office job.

• Nelson Cruz, Dee Gordon, Mike Zunino, Ben Gamel, Ryon Healy, and Nick Vincent would all spend time on the disabled list.

• The Houston Astros’ run differential would be over 100 runs better than the Mariners’.

What would you project the Mariners’ record to be given those facts? Probably the worst team in baseball, right?

Somehow, with all those things being true, the Mariners ended the first weekend of June in sole possession of first place in the American League West with a record of 37–22.

Baseball is weird.

So as we head into the heart of summer, how should we approach what looks to be the first legitimately good Mariners team in eons—one with a legit chance of breaking the franchise’s 16-year playoff drought?

First, we need to understand how we got here. Five players have been emblematic of the various factors gone right for the suddenly contending Mariners: James Paxton, Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales, and Edwin Díaz.

While Felix will always be the King, Paxton has taken the throne as the team’s ace. He’s allowed two runs or less in nine of his 12 starts while also throwing a 16 K game, surviving an on-field eagle attack with stoicism, and … oh yeah … pitching a no-hitter in his homeland of Canada. Segura has been the veteran anchor on the offensive side, more than filling the void during Canó’s absence, hitting .331 with clutch timing while picking up 37 much-needed RBIs.

As mentioned in our season preview, one of the promising young players would need to make the leap to an All-Star level for the Mariners to field a competitive team. Well, Haniger has done exactly that, belting a team-leading 12 home runs. More improbably, Gonzales has transformed himself from an abject disaster last season to a legitimate starter, allowing one run or less in his past four starts.

But with the Mariners’ propensity for nail-bitters (playing in a league-leading 27 one-run games), no player has been as important as closer Edwin Díaz. While he’s always had the pitches to be elite, he’s finally put the full package together to become the best closer in baseball, notching a MLB-leading 21 saves.

All that has resulted in a Mariners team that is incredibly fun to root for and continues to play must-see games on a nightly basis. While having a crappy baseball team for a decade and a half does free time for other summer activities, it’s nice to have a squad in town that calls for a greater investment than the occasional trip to Safeco Field and the more-common half-hearted sighs when glancing at another disappointing box score. The last time the team was in first place this far into the season, Edgar Martinez was still a player, not a hitting coach or a street.

That said, there are still more than 100 games to go (how is the MLB season this looooooooong?), so it’s essential to manage expectations. While the Mariners have been thrilling so far this season, a few glaring red flags prevent their march to the postseason from being anything close to an inevitability.

While it would be unfair to call the squad lucky, they’re doing a few things that seem statistically unsustainable. As of this past weekend, the Mariners are 18-9 in one-run games. Even with a lights-out closer like Diaz, maintaining such an extremely positive record in close games tends to be a statistical anomaly instead of something fans can count on. A regression to the mean in the department could easily bump the team from the top of the division to the outside of the wild card picture.

On that same track, there’s the aforementioned run differential. There’s an extremely strong correlation between run differential and record, because teams that are scoring vastly more than their opponents avoid those coin-flip one-run contests. Through Sunday, the Mariners differential is +17. Meanwhile, the Astros, who sit a game behind the M’s in the standings, boast an MLB-best +122 run differential. Basically the Astros are running teams off the field while the Mariners are scrapping and clawing for every W.

Being in the same division with a juggernaut like the Astros is extremely unfortunate for the Mariners’ playoff chances, as is being in the American League in general. Beyond three division foes—the Astros, the Angels, and the Athletics—posting winning records, the Red Sox and Yankees sport the two best records in the entire league. That means a wild card slot would probably mean a one-game playoff in Boston or New York City. If the Mariners were playing in the AL Central, they’d have a 6.5 game lead, but of course that would be far too easy and the cosmos decided Mariners fans can’t have nice things.

It will be especially hard to stay ahead of all the competitors because there’s no real chance for an upgrade to the team’s roster. For starters, Canó’s suspension makes him ineligible for any potential postseason play. Furthermore, any experts consider the Mariners farm system the worst in MLB, meaning there aren’t young studs on the horizon to give the team a boost or to use in trades to land an impact player. Any talent infusion would likely have to come from the M’s picking up a talented-but-underperforming player with a contract another team wants to unload (occasionally that works; see: Leake, Mike).

Even if this isn’t the Mariners team that will ultimately end Seattle’s postseason woes, it’s only a few more weeks of good play away from capturing the summer zeitgeist and actually becoming a defining part of Seattle’s 2018 summer. Few things could be as exciting as seeing Safeco packed on a regular basis and the team generating a palpable buzz. Seattle is not a city of fair-weather baseball fans, but the franchise essentially punted on an entire generation due to ineptitude. You can’t blame fans for not turning out to see a legitimately awful product. Finally, it appears we’ve got a team worthy of living and dying on every pitch.

Baseball is back.

See you at Safeco.

KEY DATES

June 15-24

Are the Mariners for real? A nine-game stretch against the Red Sox and Yankees (aka two best teams in the AL) should give us a definitive answer.

July 1

Because it’s Canada Day and the team is giving away a bobblehead of James Paxton with an eagle perched on his shoulder, which totally rules.

July 31

The Mariners might not have the ammo to make a big move on Trade Deadline Day, but GM Jerry DiPoto is a trade addict, so…

Aug 2-5

Maybe this season we can finally not let those dirty Canucks takeover Safeco and act like the home team during the series with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Aug 20-22

The last homestand against the defending-champion Astros could be the momentum tipping point heading into the final month of the season.

Sept 7-9

This home series against the Yankees could determine who gets home field in the wild-card game.

Sept 28-30

The Mariners end the regular season at home against the Texas Rangers. Hopefully “regular” was the key word in that last sentence.

ssommerfeld@seattleweekly.com