By Gary Hill
The Mariners have surged to five wins in a row and boosted their record to six games over the .500 mark. They are also currently holding down the second wild-card playoff spot in the wide-open American League.
The starting rotation has been the fundamental reason for Seattle's success so far this season. The rotation has thrown the eighth-most innings in MLB and is currently ranked seventh in starter ERA.
1. Cardinals, 3.06
2. Dodgers, 3.09
3. Athletics, 3.21
4. Nationals, 3.26
5. Braves, 3.31
6. Reds, 3.44
7. Mariners, 3.50
8. Mets, 3.60
9. Angels, 3.61
11. Brewers, 3.66
The significance of the Mariners elevating themselves into the top-11 in starting-pitcher ERA cannot be overstated. Only one team outside of the top-11 made the playoffs in 2013, and no team that ranked below 14th made reached the postseason.
2013 starter ERA
1. Dodgers, 3.13 (playoffs)
2. Cardinals, 3.42 (playoffs)
3. Reds, 3.43 (playoffs)
4. Tigers, 3.44 (playoffs)
5. Pirates, 3.50 (playoffs)
6. Braves, 3.51 (playoffs)
7. Nationals, 3.60
8. Mets, 3.68
9. Athletics, 3.72 (playoffs)
10. Rays, 3.81 (playoffs)
11. Red Sox, 3.84 (playoffs)
The Mets and Nationals were the only teams in the top-11 in starter ERA that did not reach the postseason last year. The Indians were the lone competitors to land in the playoffs outside of the top-11 as their 3.92 starter ERA ranked 14th.
In 2013, Felix Hernandez combined with fellow All-Star Hisashi Iwakuma to form a devastating one-two punch. The dynamic duo only yielded 134 earned runs in a 424 innings for a 2.84 ERA. The remaining three spots in the rotation, however, did not fare nearly as well (5.24 ERA in 537 innings pitched).
Here is what the Mariners received in the three-through-five slots a year ago:
• Joe Saunders: 32 starts, 5.26 ERA
• Aaron Harang: 22 starts, 5.76 ERA
• Brandon Maurer: 14 starts, 6.20 ERA
• Erasmo Ramirez: 13 starts, 4.97 ERA
• Blake Beavan: 2 starts, 8.44 ERA
• Jeremy Bonderman: 7 starts, 4.93 ERA
• Hector Noesi: 1 start, 0.00 ERA
• James Paxton: 4 starts, 1.50 ERA
• Taijuan Walker: 3 starts, 3.60 ERA
The Mariners' rotation slipped to 20th overall in starter ERA (4.18) despite the Herculean efforts of Hernandez and Iwakuma.
Those two have again been dominant this season. They have combined to go 14-5 with a 2.54 ERA. The massive difference for the Mariners this year has been the terrific twosome of Chris Young and Roenis Elias. They have boasted a 13-9 record with a 3.50 ERA in 185 innings. Their success has been essential for the Mariners surviving a month without Iwakuma and most of the season without James Paxton and Taijuan Walker.
To emphasize the importance of starting pitching, here is the breakdown of how many playoff teams finished in the top-11 in several different categories last season.
Starting pitcher ERA: 9 of the top 11 were playoff teams
• Bullpen ERA: 4 of the top 11
• Runs: 6 of the top 11
• Hits: 4 of the top 11
• Home runs: 6 of the top 11
• Batting average: 4 of the top 11
• On-base percentage: 8 of the top 11
• OPS: 6 of the top 11
What about the fifth spot?
The top four in the Mariners' rotation have been brilliant, but inconsistency has plagued the final spot. Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan and Brandon Maurer have combined to go 2-9 with a 5.64 ERA this season.
The Mariners are 34-23 in games where Felix, Iwakuma, Young and Elias start. When Beavan, Ramirez or Maurer have taken the hill, Seattle is just 6-13.
Consider how valuable it is to the Mariners to solidify the final slot in the rotation. If they just turned two of those games into wins for an 8-11 record, they would be 44-34 overall with the first wild-card in hand while closely stalking the 47-30 Athletics.
A theoretical math game further points out the significance of the fifth spot.
The fifth starter will receive roughly 16 more starts the rest of the season. Let us suppose the fifth starter performs to the point where the Mariners manage to play .500 baseball in those starts for an 8-8 record. If they played at the exact same rate the rest of the season with the first four starting (41-27), they would finish with a record of 91-71.
You can argue about whether or not it is realistic for the Mariners to play at the same rate with the first four starting, but the point about the final slot remains the same. The American League reality is that there are seven teams within six games of the final wild-card spot the Mariners currently hold. One, two or three games hurled by the fifth starter could be the difference.