The Seattle Mariners started off the season in encouraging fashion, taking two in a row over division rival Oakland to move to 2-0. And then they lost seven in a row. And then they came back from a 7-0 deficit to defeat the Toronto Blue Jays, and then they won the next day! And then they lost four in a row. And then they were mediocre, showing a bit of promise but never really doing much to convince anyone that this wasn't going to be a season of anything but abject misery or yawning indifference, depending on the state of your fandom at any given moment.
To close out the month of April the Mariners visited the Detroit Tigers, and though the Tigers haven't been very good this season, the Mariners were 8-15 coming into the series and teasing record-low attendance levels thanks to their poor and incredibly uninteresting play. Aside from Felix Hernandez and the promising but still new enough to be terrifying Michael Pineda, what else was there? Ichiro is still Ichiro, thrilling and just a tad insane and unlike anyone else that's ever played the game, but we're a fickle people these days and we've come to take the most unique player of at least two generations (in baseball terms) for granted. The Mariners star center fielder, still the most shining of Jack Zduriencick's acquisitions, is stuck in some sort of horrific and baffling health purgatory. Milton Bradley isn't quite crazy enough for our tastes, apparently.
But then something a little bit crazy happened. The Mariners swept the aforementioned Tigers. That's not a massive accomplishment in and of itself, but sweeping anyone at that moment felt a near impossible feat, and it pulled the team to within four games of .500. Next up was a visit to Boston, and though the Red Sox were struggling at the moment they were still very much the Boston Red Sox and taking two of three felt like a massive victory. The Texas Rangers-the defending AL Champions-came to town, having swept the Mariners early in the season, and Seattle managed to take the series. After compiling a .267 winning percentage over the course of the first 15 games, the Mariners had managed to draw within three of the first-placed Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim with a perfectly respectable 15-17 mark that might have once seemed completely unachievable.
So what happened? What changed with this team between mid-April and now? Did Eric Wedge finally manage to get through to the club? Did Felix Hernandez shake off the stardust gathered from his Cy Young award winning season? Was it small ball? Or is the explanation much simpler?
Coming into the season, most statistical projection systems and traditional baseball analysts had the Mariners pegged as something in the neighborhood of a 78 win team. 78 wins over the course of 162 is equivalent to a .481 winning percentage. At 15-17, the Mariners winning percentage stands at .469. Not a very significant difference, given the sample size. That's not to say the projections were absolutely correct; we've still got a whole lot of season to go until we can make such judgments. But what it very well might illustrate is a tendency to jump to conclusions where small samples-especially at the very beginning of a season-are concerned.
In reality, an 8-15 stretch is poor, but it's not anywhere near out of the realm of possibility for a team expected to finish just on the wrong side of .500. Neither, for that matter, is a run of 7-2. Unfortunately, we tend to overreact to both; the Mariners horrific start to the season led to discussions between myself and friends that are far more savvy in terms of probability and statistical analysis that revolved largely around how hopeless and bleak a summer, entirely without hope for the playoffs, this would prove to be.
In essence, we overreact; to a spirit-crushing stretch of horror to start as well as to a hope-bringing run of success just in the aftermath. This Mariners team is mediocre at best, one of the worst offensive clubs in baseball bolstered by one of the better starting rotations in baseball and an elite defense and brought right back down to Earth by a laughably terrible bullpen. There have been positive surprises in the form of Michael Pineda and Justin Smoak, but there have been disappointments in the form of Chone Figgins and Michael Saunders. There are reasons to be optimistic, with Erik Bedard seemingly returning to something approaching form and Franklin Gutierrez rehabbing in Tacoma, but the odds are great that Michael Pineda will miss some significant time thanks to service time issues and Justin Smoak will regress. This is a team with a fair amount of talent that is built in a way that is bound to excite and frustrate in equal measure.
The key is to keep things on an even keel. There will be horrid streaks akin to those at the start of the year and their will be torrid streaks like the one the team is in the midst of at the present. The odds are good that when all is said and done the Mariners will be in the neighborhood of .500 and with luck and perhaps a few solid moves at the trade deadline, they'll be in contention as well. But they're not great. Nor are they horrific. If things can line up with expectations within the space of a month, the odds are good they'll do the same over the course of a 162 game season.