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The Mariners Are First-Place Flukes—and They Deserve It

Seattle is outperforming every projection thanks to an unsustainable record in one-run games, but for the team with the longest playoff drought in the four major American sports, that luck is long overdue

James Paxton, Nelson Cruz, and Jerry Dipoto Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On May 13, the Mariners lost Robinson Canó to a hit by pitch that broke his hand. They also suffered a walk-off loss to the Tigers. When that costly day in Detroit concluded, Seattle’s record stood at 22-17. Although the M’s were five games over .500, they had outscored their opponents by only three runs. They trailed the Astros by 2.5 games in the AL West, and the Angels by 1.5 games in both the West and the race for the second wild card. Both of those direct rivals had superior preseason projections and in-season stats. According to FanGraphs, the Mariners’ odds of snapping the franchise’s 16-season playoff drought—the longest such streak in the four major American sports—were just 14 percent.

Days later, Canó, who was already slated for surgery, was suspended for 80 games for violating MLB’s joint drug agreement. The terms of the second baseman’s punishment dictated that if the Mariners made the playoffs, he’d be ineligible for October action—but without him, their chances of qualifying for postseason play appeared even slimmer than they’d been before. “Subtracting a five-win player from Seattle’s uneven roster is a heavy blow, and with the Mariners’ margin for error already dreadfully thin before his loss, it could prove fatal,” Jon Tayler wrote at Sports Illustrated, expressing the consensus.

In the month since the Mariners lost Canó, one aspect of their season has played out predictably: Seattle second basemen have been bad. Entering Tuesday, Andrew Romine and the not-so-good Gordons—Dee Gordon and Gordon Beckham—had combined in Canó’s absence to hit .180/.208/.230 in 108 plate appearances, which translates to an MLB-worst 18 wRC+. In virtually every other respect, though, the M’s have defied the dire pronouncements and turned into the latest textbook case of baseball being unpredictable. Without Canó, and with replacement second-sackers who have hemorrhaged runs at the plate, the Mariners have gone 21-7, giving them the best record in baseball over that span. The 43-24 M’s are now half a game ahead of Houston atop the AL West, and 6.5 up on the Angels. Their playoff odds have climbed to 68.1 percent at FanGraphs, and 70 percent at FiveThirtyEight. To reach this point, the Mariners have relied on fantastic timing—or, as we also could call it, luck. That might seem unfair to the fans of the teams that are trailing the M’s, but no baseball fan base deserves a little luck more than the long-suffering fans in Seattle.

Before explaining that luck, let’s give the Mariners some credit for engineering their own success. The preseason projections at FanGraphs envisioned the Mariners as a 78-win team. That they’ve played at the pace of a 104-win team has stemmed partly from the fact on the whole, their roster has exceeded expectations. The Mariners have been a pretty good pitching team (seventh in park-adjusted FIP), an OK offensive team (eighth in non-pitcher wRC+), and a so-so defensive team (16th in park-adjusted defensive efficiency). Relative to what seemed to be in store for them, that’s a modestly pleasant surprise. The table below lists the Mariners’ preseason-projected WAR, year-to-date WAR, and full-season WAR pace through Monday at each spot around the diamond.

2018 Mariners’ Production by Position

Position Preseason YTD Pace Diff
Position Preseason YTD Pace Diff
C 2.7 0.9 2.2 -0.5
1B 0.2 -0.1 -0.2 -0.4
2B 2.9 0.6 1.5 -1.4
SS 2 2.7 6.6 4.6
3B 3.9 1.2 2.9 -1
LF 0.5 0.5 1.2 0.7
CF 2 1.2 2.9 0.9
RF 2.1 1.6 3.9 1.8
DH 2.5 0.6 1.5 -1
SP 11.6 5.1 12.5 0.9
RP 3.3 3.3 8.1 4.8
Batters 18.8 9.4 23.1 4.3
Pitchers 14.9 8.5 20.9 6

Thanks largely to the bullpen as a unit, shortstop Jean Segura, and right fielder Mitch Haniger—the latter two of whom teamed up for a pretty play on Tuesday—the Mariners have played like a team that’s about 10 wins better than the preseason projections foresaw. That doesn’t mean that they’ll continue to outplay their projections, but it does help explain how they’ve gotten where they are, at least to some extent. But 10 wins better than 78 is only 88—good enough for wild-card contention, but nowhere close to the pace Seattle has set so far. For that, we return to the team’s timing.

Even during the Mariners’ 20-7 run leading up to their most recent victory on Tuesday, they outscored their opponents by only 19 runs, or roughly 0.7 runs per game. That per-game differential ranked only ninth among major league teams in that period, yet no team enjoyed more favorable results. Therein lies the luck. FanGraphs gives us multiple ways of assessing what a team’s record “should” be, based on its runs scored and allowed or even more granular measures of underlying performance: PythagenPat and BaseRuns record, respectively. Both versions of expected record are available back to 2002—as it happens, the same season that the Mariners’ current drought began. The teams below surpassed their expected records by the widest margins over that 16-season span.

Biggest Team Overperformances, 2002-17

Year Team BaseRuns Diff Year Team PythagenPat Diff
Year Team BaseRuns Diff Year Team PythagenPat Diff
2008 Angels 0.105 2018 Mariners 0.1
2018 Mariners 0.093 2016 Rangers 0.081
2006 Athletics 0.08 2017 Padres 0.075
2013 Yankees 0.08 2008 Angels 0.074
2007 Diamondbacks 0.079 2005 Diamondbacks 0.073
2016 Rangers 0.079 2004 Yankees 0.072
2008 Astros 0.075 2012 Orioles 0.069
2009 Angels 0.069 2007 Diamondbacks 0.069
2012 Orioles 0.068 2004 Reds 0.061
2003 Royals 0.067 2009 Mariners 0.06
2015 Cardinals 0.067 2016 Phillies 0.059
2015 Royals 0.067 2007 Mariners 0.055

Through Monday, the Mariners had beaten their BaseRuns record by 93 points of winning percentage and their PythagenPat record by 100 points of winning percentage, which would be the second-biggest and biggest positive margins, respectively, in those years. How does a team win so many games without significantly outscoring its opponents? It wins a whole heck of a lot of close games, which is exactly what the Mariners have done, up to and including a dramatic, one-run-game-ending play at the plate in Tampa Bay on Sunday. The Mariners have gone 21-9 in one-run games and 7-2 in two-run games. Put the two together, and the M’s own a 28-11 record in games decided by one or two runs, which would be the best ever. The 2018 Astros, who lead the majors in run differential, have gone only 6-12 in one-run games—hence Seattle’s slight division lead.

The lists of teams that have overperformed their expected records and excelled in one- and two-run games—which show a lot of overlap—are littered with notoriously divisive seasons. In recent years, the 2016 Rangers, 2015 Royals and Cardinals, 2012 Orioles, and others have prompted heated debates about both how to evaluate those squads specifically and how to appraise whether one-run records are “real” or random. A bloated body of sabermetric literature, in concert with compelling anecdotal examples—famously, the sub-replacement-level 2003 Tigers posted a winning record in one-run games—has demonstrated over and over that records in close games are largely determined by chance and unlikely to repeat from one year to the next. Teams that succeed in non-one-run games do tend to be a bit better in one-run games, but that relationship is weak.

To the extent that records in close games reflect a roster’s skill, much of the credit or blame is attributable to the bullpen. A good one-run record doesn’t guarantee a good bullpen, and a good bullpen doesn’t guarantee a good one-run record, but it does help. Led by Edwin Díaz, Juan Nicasio, Nick Vincent, James Pazos, Chasen Bradford, the long-lost Ryan Cook, and other supporting arms, Mariners relievers lead the majors in shutdowns and rank fourth in WAR and strikeout rate and fifth in park-adjusted FIP. That’s something that anxious M’s fans can cling to, although as indicated earlier, the pen has pitched over its head, which the M’s can’t count on to continue.

If luck is the residue of design, as Branch Rickey asserted, then the Mariners deserve a charmed season: No one designs like Jerry Dipoto, the only general manager whose incessant transactions have inspired a Ringer original song. The Mariners hired Dipoto on September 28, 2015. Since the start of that October, they’ve easily outstripped every other team in terms of total trade activity.

Trades by MLB team since October 1, 2015, with the Mariners leading the league

Despite having perhaps the thinnest farm system in baseball, Dipoto and an army of low-level front-office trade crafters swung a swap with the Rays last month—long before trade season has historically started in earnest—to add Denard Span to an injury-depleted complement of position players and reinforce the relief corps with Alex Colomé. It’s hard not to feel for the frenetic Dipoto, who hasn’t yet reached the promised land with the roster he’s repeatedly remade; maybe a playoff appearance in Seattle would help him come to terms with his team without sending nonstop trade texts.

It’s even easier to sympathize with Mariners fans, who haven’t been this close to contention in 15 years. Dan Hirsch, the proprietor of historical stats and analysis site The Baseball Gauge, has calculated simple, day-by-day playoff probabilities for every team in MLB history, based not on player projections but on the standings and schedules to come. Before Tuesday’s game, the Mariners’ simple playoff odds at Hirsch’s site stood at 78.3 percent. The only previous seasons in the championship-less franchise’s history in which the Mariners had boasted odds that high as late in the year were 1995, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003. Prior to 1995, their rosiest playoff odds at any point in a season were 36.5 percent; post-2003, their highest odds at any point in a season other than this one were 68.8 percent (in early September 2014). The last time the Mariners made the playoffs, Ichiro was a rookie in right field; now he’s a special assistant/bench coach/batting-practice pitcher. The last time the Mariners were a likely playoff team late in the season, Félix Hernández was a Cy Young runner-up; now he’s a fringy fourth or fifth starter who’d have to defer to James Paxton in a must-win wild-card start. Whether or not the Mariners are due for a playoff berth in a statistical sense, they’re overdue for one by any other kind of accounting.

If the Mariners fluke their way to one of baseball’s best records, their presence in the tournament could be a victimless crime. This team is better than (for instance) the 2007 Diamondbacks, who made the playoffs despite being outscored, and given the weakness of the rest of the AL second-wild-card field, an M’s playoff appearance probably wouldn’t come at the expense of a significantly better team (although it would mean another October without Mike Trout). To get there, the Mariners will have to fight off regression and endure the most grueling remaining strength of schedule outside of the AL East, but the wins that they’ve banked may give them a big enough buffer to see the season through. The Mariners haven’t been here in years, and they may not be back for years: The club features older-than-average pitchers and the fifth-oldest batters in baseball, and the aforementioned farm system won’t be sending much assistance soon. But if this is their current core’s last ride, it’s shaping up to be one of baseball’s best stories. For this team, at this time, an excess of luck isn’t cause for consternation; it’s the baseball gods making up for past pain in a way we can all enjoy.

An earlier version of this piece misspelled Chasen Bradford’s name.

Thanks to Dan Hirsch of The Baseball Gauge for research assistance.