Analysis: What is the matter with the Mariners bullpen?

When a team loses 21 of their last 27 games, the blame should be widespread. This type of failure requires team-wide accountability. Pointing to a player or two, or even a positional group, as the primary cause of losing goes against baseball’s team culture.

Looking to blame a massively disappointing start to a season packed with expectations, the list includes:

  • The front office’s failure to add another impact racquet via the free hand.
  • Robbie Ray doesn’t quite resemble the Cy Young award pitcher he was in 2021.
  • All-Star Outfielder Jesse Winker’s slow start and lack of additional base hits.
  • Jarred Kelenic’s struggles that forced him to get selected to Class AAA Tacoma.
  • The injuries to outfielder Mitch Haniger, catcher Tom Murphy, and assists Ken Giles, Casey Sadler, and Erik Swanson.
  • The relapse of several players including pitcher Drew Steckenrider, Chris Flexen and Anthony Misiewicz.

But the struggles of the Mariners’ bullpen, particularly in recent weeks, have been almost impossible to ignore while slices of the debt pie are divided.

Why?

Because the bullpen was so crucial to the team’s success in its surprise 90-win season last year. Given the fickle nature of bullpen production and the season-to-season success of the MLB Reliefs, it would be impossible for pitchers like Misiewicz, Sadler, Steckenrider and Paul Sewald to repeat career-best performances in 2021.

Still, it’s not hard for manager Scott Servais to see just how far it’s come.

“It comes from lack of performance,” said Servais. “That’s what makes a bullpen. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, they’ve got great back-end guys and everyone notices the guy who pitches the eighth inning or the guy who pitches the ninth inning normally. But it’s all the other guys that let these guys do the rest and we always put them in the right places. It’s a collective entity and the group has to be strong while understanding that not everyone is going to be great at the same time.”

Right now, the number of assists Servais trusts in high-leverage situations are Sewald, veteran right-hander Sergio Romo, rookie right-hander Penn Murfee and right-hander Diego Castillo when he’s rested. The rest of the group was a roll of the dice.

Steckenrider has been so poor lately that the team optioned him to Class AAA Tacoma after Wednesday’s loss to the A so he could regain command of his secondary spots. Steckenrider allowed hits in 12 of his 16 outings and base runners in all but one. A year ago he had 20 outings, including five from more than one inning where he missed a runner. Opposing racquets have a .333/.382/.540 slash line against him on 68 plate appearances.

The corresponding squad change is still pending.

Misiewicz’s strikeout percentage has dropped from 30.1 in 2020 to 22.5 in 2021 and 14.3 in 2022. His walk percentage is up from 6.4 in 2021 to 8.2 this season. He only throws first pitch strikes 57.1% of the time. He is in 10th placeth worst in MLB for average exit speed allowable on balls in play (90.8) and hard hit percentage (44.7).

“That’s the last option, sending them out and trying to get them to work on some things,” Servais said ahead of Wednesday’s game. “But with the way we’re set up right now, with Kyle Lewis we’re one bullpen arm down. We’ve got to have some guys that get up, serve well and get people out.

Per FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, the Mariners’ bullpen numbers and MLB rankings this season:

  • FanGraphs WAR: 0.3 (bound for 23approx)
  • PERIOD: 4.34 (25th)
  • Strikeout Percentage: 25.2 (8thth)
  • Walking percentage: 8.2 (5thth)
  • Allowed Batting Average: .240 (23rdapprox)
  • OPS Allowed: .714 (7thth highest)
  • WHIP: 1.27 (19thth)
  • Holds: 22 (20thth)
  • Saves: 7 (same 13th)
  • Lost saves: 6 (shared for 4th place)
  • Inherited Runner Scoring Percentage: 33 (10thth)
  • Home runs allowed: 22 (decided 4th most)
  • First strike percentage: 59.7 (15thth)

The absence of Sadler and Giles are problems. Sadler was so solid in the “pivot” role from starter to bullpen. This season, the Mariners’ bullpen has a combined ERA of 4.57 in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings.

Sadler is lost for the season but Giles could return in a week or two.

The bullpen problems have become more pronounced in the current 6-21 stretch, which could easily have been 5-22 had Pete Alonso not loaded to a late-game check swing in New York with a 3-2 count with Bases would have been called Castillo. The pitch was out of zone and would have gone into the tie run. And the Mets probably would have won the game.

What is the problem?

“It’s strike throwing,” Servais said. “That’s probably the one thing that surprised me more than anything, our strike-throwing ability to consistently command our pitchers. There’s only one way to get better at it: you have to trust your stuff and get it in the zone.”

Servais wants the pitchers to be aggressive.

“Guys, maybe their stuff isn’t moving as crisply or sharply as it used to,” he said. “And all pitchers want to see movement. If it doesn’t move, you know it doesn’t move. Then all of a sudden they think maybe it needs to be a little bit more on the edges instead of just trusting him and I’m not saying throw it right in the middle.”

It is as much a mindset as the execution.

“There’s not a pitcher standing out there saying, ‘Here, go ahead, hit it.’ It’s not human nature,” Servais said. “They believe in their stuff and want to make it bad. But maybe if it doesn’t move as much as usual or doesn’t feel right coming out of your hand, they try to overcompensate and instead of the ball being in the hitting zone, it’s just a little off or just a little bit below. And all of that plays into it. There are a million theories. I’m tired of talking about this. Just throw it over the plate and see what happens.”

Leave a Comment