With their 4 to 3 over the Los Angeles Angels on Sunday, the Seattle Mariners got their first series sweep of the 2013 season and their first since last August 20 - 22 against the Cleveland Indians. The Angels are still under .500 themselves, but they came to Safeco having won 11 of their last 14 games before being handed three straight losses by the Mariners. And while Seattle enters the All-Star Break at 43-52, they do it not only fresh off of this sweep, but having won eight of their last 13 games and four of seven on a tough homestand against the Boston Red Sox and LA.
And while All-Stars Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma both pitched twice during those seven games, the M's really did it with offense; they scored 48 runs during the seven games and have now scored 5.5 runs a game over their last 22 contests. In those 22 games the Mariners have four players -- Raul Ibanez (3rd, 1.172), Kyle Seager (7th, 1.035), Justin Smoak (12th, 1.005) and Kendrys Morales (17th, .917) -- that rank among the American League Leaders in OPS and the middle of the lineup, which has been much maligned for the last several years, is finally actually producing and looking like a legitimate Major League middle of the lineup.
Ibanez has to be considered the team's offensive MVP of the first half. The 41-year-old has already seen nearly 300 plate appearances -- probably about the number that most expected him to get for the entire year -- and has played 31 of his last 34 games as the team's starting left fielder. He has been out-homered by only three American League players and enters the break posting the best wOBA (.379) of his 18-year big league career. Ibanez's fountain of youth with the bat has been a huge boost for this club, and his veteran leadership, which we detailed before the season, is undoubtedly paying dividends, too.
Seager, a bit of a surprise as the club's top hitter a year ago, has improved his game this year as well. The third baseman is hitting .293/.359/.488 and has already collected 40 extra base hits while upping his walk rate and lowering his strikeout rate for the third straight season. Kyle was hitting just .243/.306/.420 at last year's break, and the 20 home runs from last year that many thought may have been an aberration now look like more of a sign of Kyle's true power, as he has 15 home runs at the break this season. His defense continues to improve, too, and he now ranks among the top half of third baseman according to the advanced defensive metrics.
Smoak has been a huge positive for the club, particularly since returning from his oblique strain. The 26-year-old switch-hitter, who many fans were ready to dump prior to this year, has hit .333/.416/.603 in 22 games since rejoining Seattle following his injury and enters the break with an almost unthinkable .272 AVG and .803 OPS. He's teased with stretches of solid offensive performance a few times before, but the difference this time is that the stretch consists of 68 games and none of them are in September. He continues to struggle against left-handed pitchers (.512 OPS in 76 PA), but he is killing the ball right now, even in Safeco, where it seemed in the past that no one was more affected (mentally) by the old dimensions, and he finally is looking like a player that was a worthy target in the Cliff Lee deal a few years back.
Morales has been probably about as good as the best-case-scenario crowd projected he would be at the time of the trade to acquire him for Jason Vargas went down; .280/.337/.463 with 22 doubles, 14 home runs and 54 RBI for the veteran switch-hitter has been huge. As was him holding down first base defensively (and hitting very well in the process) while Smoak was out. He's hit incredibly well against left-handers (.308/.376/.467) and has played in the 2nd most games (90) on the team, providing a steady, powerful force in the lineup.
While those four have been the day-to-day constants as the Mariners have seen their offense come to live, it simply can't be ignored that that life seems to have appeared exactly at the same time that some other moves were made. The recall of the young guys -- starting with Nick Franklin but followed shortly thereafter by the debuts of Mike Zunino and Brad Miller and the recall of the newly minted outfield version of Dustin Ackley -- and their immediate insertion into the starting lineup has brought a renewed since of energy to the club. Add in Michael Saunders rounding back into form and the complete overhaul to the club's athleticism is very apparent.
Hernandez and Iwakuma are headed to the All-Star game, and deservedly so, but Joe Saunders has been solid and Aaron Harang has turned in some very good starts, too. Erasmo Ramirez was recently recalled and he is the most talented pitcher that they have had pitch in the back end this season. In the bullpen, Tom Wilhelmsen had a painfully rough stretch that he seems to be coming out of now and with him, Oliver Perez, Charlie Furbush and Yoervis Medina at the end of games Seattle has a formidable group of arms to turn to.
All of that going on at the major league level while there is still top talent such as Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, Brandon Maurer, James Paxton and Stefen Romero just a step away down in Triple-A Tacoma. We could see all of those five and more young prospects in the second half for Seattle still.
But the most encouraging signs that we should take away from this first half are the big improvement in the team offense and the big individual improvements from some of the young players who Seattle wants and needs to be their core. Smoak, Seager, Saunders, Ackley and Franklin are all seeing more pitchers per PA than the league average. Smoak's better command of the strike zone in particular has been huge in his ability to produce. He is posting the lowest O-Swing% (rate of swinging at pitches outside of the zone) of his career at 24.9% and is making contact on those pitches at the highest rate (66.7%) of his career, too. Seager's evolution into a true power source, with a 9.9% XBH rate and 140 OPS+, good for 9th in the AL, is a huge development for a guy that wasn't forecast to be such an impact player on offense just a few short seasons ago. Saunders, who made strides last season and has come on again of late, has improved his patience and chase rate, too and once again is showing pop in his bat lately. Miller and Franklin are shining at the top of the order with good on base skills and pop in their bats and look to be huge upgrades at their respective positions.
The Mariners of 2013 are showing a lot of signs of life on offense and they are finally starting to look like the team that we thought they should. And a big part of that life is coming from the young players -- the core. With that great 22 game stretch of performance helping their confidence and with some key players (Michael Morse, Stephen Pryor and possibly even Franklin Gutierrez) set to return to action early in the second half, the Mariners will be looking to build on the momentum they've created over the past three or four weeks when the second half kicks off on Friday.
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