“No one likes to hear it, because it’s dull, but the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same: pitching.” —Hall-of-Fame manager Earl Weaver
Joining the 2014 pennant race was always going to take some luck, and that lady has not been blowing on the Mariners’ dice. Four Mariner starting pitchers are hurt—five if you count top prospect Danny Hultzen, out indefinitely after major shoulder surgery.
Losing an entire starting rotation would cripple an elite team, let alone the flawed M’s. But not every roll has come up snake eyes. Encouraging performances by young hitters supply hope. The M’s can stay in the race while their pitchers mend if:
Mike Zunino’s free-swinging style keeps working. “Carpe diem” has been Zunino’s motto thus far, as he’s swung at 63 percent of the pitches he’s seen—a higher rate than any other regular in baseball. The 23-year-old Zunino has three homers to show for it, but if he keeps swinging like an enraged Spartacus, he’s going to see fewer and fewer hittable pitches as opposing hurlers wise up to his approach. Still, a 20-homer season seems within reach, which would be rare for a catcher as young as Zunino. In baseball’s long history, only five catchers younger than 24 have hit 20 home runs in a season.
Abraham Almonte’s bizarre stats aren’t a fluke. Batting Average on balls in play (BAbip) measures how often a player gets a hit when he manages to put bat to ball. Last year’s MLB average was .297. Almonte’s is .372. A BAbip that high can be a product of luck, but some players—usually speedy, strong ones like Almonte—consistently outpace the median. If Almonte’s BAbip stays up, it’s probably a feature of his game rather than a statistical quirk, and the Mariners have that rare and glorious thing—an above-average hitter at a key defensive position.
Dustin Ackley keeps hitting fastballs for doubles. Just like last year, Ackley is seeing more fastballs than any other Mariner regular. But unlike last year, he’s not the worst Mariner regular at hitting them. Ackley’s cracked five doubles against four-seam fastballs already in 2014, as many as he hit off that pitch all of last year. Not coincidentally, he leads the Mariners in hitting.
So pitching injuries may be the story of the Mariner season so far, but 2014 isn’t written in stone quite yet.