Mariners: On Manufacturing Runs

May 19, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Seattle Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano (22) swings during his at bat during the eighth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Seattle Mariners defeated Baltimore Orioles 7-2. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
May 19, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Seattle Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano (22) swings during his at bat during the eighth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Seattle Mariners defeated Baltimore Orioles 7-2. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports /

The Mariners are first in the American League West and second in the league in runs scored. However, some Mariners fans are worried about whether this early season offensive success is sustainable. Are they right to be worried?

The Mariners haven’t had much trouble scoring runs this season. They are currently second in the American League in runs scored with 201. The question is how many of these runs were “manufactured”, which breeds several questions I hope to examine (not necessarily answer—gotta keep the readers coming back). First of all, what are “manufactured runs” anyway? And are manufactured runs more sustainable all season than scoring via the home run? The Mariners have hit 59 home runs on the season so far, third in the league. Can we expect them to continue to hit home runs or should we be worried as the season moves on?

Before the advent of sabermetrics, “manufacturing runs” was thought of as the most reliable and consistent method of scoring runs. Get ‘em on, get ‘em over, and get ‘em in. The thought process behind this strategy was to make the most of your baserunners. If a batter gets on first, either bunt him over to second or put the ‘steal’ sign on to get him in scoring position, then all you need is a base knock to “manufacture” the run.

Billy Beane and his army of baseball nerds found fault with this strategy and built winning clubs and successful offenses by never giving up outs with sacrifices or basestealing attempts. Beane’s insistence on using on-base percentages and the three-run home run was the beginning of the sabermetric era in baseball. Since manufacturing runs was too inconsistent for a small-market team like the Oakland A’s to build around, they took their walks and tried to rely on extra-base hits to do their damage. And it worked.

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Mariners General Manager Jerry Dipoto promised a return to sabermetrics for the Mariners this year. He came in and added players like Nori Aoki, who is (supposed to be) an on-base machine. He played the splits game by adding both Dae-Ho Lee and Adam Lind, first basemen who are good at hitting lefties and righties, respectively, to fill a gaping hole at first base.

Dipoto didn’t shy away from players with speed who could manufacture runs, either. He traded fan favorite Tom Wilhelmsen to the Texas Rangers for Leonys Martin—a player not known necessarily for on-base skills, but whose speed on the basepaths make it easy for him to score. Dipoto cleared room for Ketel Marte by jettisoning incumbent shortstop Brad Miller to the Tampa Bay Rays, and his disciple in the dugout, manager Scott Servais, hasn’t been shy about putting the steal sign on to get runners in scoring position this year.

General Manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais have been one mind in executing their run-producing strategy so far this season. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports /

But how much of the Mariners’ offensive success this year comes from Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz hitting home runs and how much comes from attempts to manufacture runs? First, let’s determine how the Mariners have done manufacturing runs this year. As I mentioned above, teams usually try to manufacture runs by stealing bases, sacrificing runners, and getting hits with runners in scoring position.

The Mariners have been abysmal at stealing bases in 2016. I’ve documented their struggles at stealing almost two weeks ago, and their situation has not improved. As a team, the Mariners have swiped 15 bases out of 29 attempts. That’s right. They have only one more stolen base than the number of times they have been caught stealing. Their 15 steals are 11th in the American League and their 14 times caught stealing is the second most in the American League. Only three Mariners have attempted more than two steals this season: Leonys Martin, who is seven of ten; Ketel Marte, who is five of seven; and Nori Aoki, who is an appalling two of eight. There just aren’t that many names that pop out of the Mariners lineup as expert basestealers. Many of us thought Aoki would be at least a decent basestealer, even if he’s not as fast as he used to be, but now it looks like he shouldn’t ever get the steal sign in a game. That leaves Martin and Marte (who’s on the DL with a thumb injury) as the only two basestealers in the lineup. Not good for manufacturing runs in the way I have described.

Nelson Cruz has been overshadowed by Robinson Cano this season, but he is currently slashing a healthy .275/.380/.503 this season. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports /

Sacrificing runners and creating runs with outs by itself isn’t the hallmark of an offensive juggernaught, but it is part of manufacturing runs, and the art of dropping down a bunt can add run-producing ability to any lineup. So far, the Mariners have only seven sacrifices on the season, but they have 14 sacrifice flies, ranked third in the American League. They aren’t particularly worried about advancing runners with bunts, but when a runner reaches third, they have brought him in 14 times by flying out. That’s not a bad manufactured runs indication. In fact, as a whole, the Mariners have brought home the runner from third with less than two outs 45% of the time. Not bad.

Now we reach the final and most crucial gauge of manufactured runs: hitting with runners in scoring position. On the season (by my count) the Mariners have gone 87-for-335 with RISP, according to Mike Blowers, who whispers the RISP numbers in his sleep the night before every game so he can update broadcast viewers every 30 seconds (I actually got the data from ESPN). That’s a .260 batting average—12 points higher than their batting average overall. Pretty good.

So while the Mariners are below average in getting runners in scoring position via the stolen base and don’t really sacrifice runners over any more than other teams, they have been above average this season at hitting with runners in scoring position and picking up that guy from third with less than two outs. On the whole, they have been manufacturing runs well, just not far and away better than other good teams this year.

If the Mariners are above average at manufacturing runs, how are they second in the American League in runs scored? It’s because they have been pretty good at producing runs like the classic Billy Beane A’s clubs in the early 2000’s, too. There are really two skills you have to master as a team to produce runs using sabermetrics (without getting into baserunning statistics and other oceans of numbers no one wants to read) are getting on base and hitting home runs.

The Mariners have been getting on base and hitting home runs this year consistently. Their .324 on-base percentage as a team is second in the league and their 59 home runs (the Mariners have yet to play May 23rd’s game against the A’s as of this writing) is the third-most in the league. Their .420 slugging percentage is fifth. As good as the Mariners have been in “clutch” situations this year with their .260 batting average with RISP, they have perhaps been better at producing sabermetric runs.

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After digging through the numbers, I’m convinced that this Mariners team is not only good offensively, but that we should expect this production to continue throughout the season, barring serious injury to a few key players. Old-school baseball fans will point out missed opportunities with men on base, lamenting the Mariners’ inability to manufacture a run from a baserunner on first, and sabermetrically-inclined fans will lament Nori Aoki getting thrown out at second trying to steal again. If it were up to me—if I could choose which approach the Mariners take to producing runs for the rest of the season—I would choose the sabermetric approach, based on their personnel. A big part of manufacturing runs is stealing bases, and there are only two players on the team I would ask to steal regularly: Leonys Martin and Ketel Marte. Meanwhile, there is plenty of power in the lineup this year—five players have six or more home runs. And one of those players (Dae-Ho Lee—six HRs) is a platoon-mate. There are also six players in the lineup with 16 or more walks. Six.

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Both sides are right. Both ways of producing runs have their advantages and their flaws. Both are best used in certain situations. Both will be effective and ineffective at times this season, but take heart, Mariners fans, no matter which side of the run creation philosophical divide you fall on, the Mariners are producing and doing it better than most, and that’s what counts.