Consider the following dates: April 4 . . . April 20 . . . April 15 . . . April 17 . . . April 2 . . . May 5 . . . April 21 . . . April 2 . . . April 8 . . . April 3 . . . April 11 . . . April 12. In addition to the fact that tulips are still in bloom on those calendar junctures, they are also the last day of each season, starting in 2004 through 2015, that the Mariners spent in first place in the AL West.
Say this for outgoing CEO Howard Lincoln and his surrogates in gloom, ex-GMs Bill Bavasi and Jack Zduriencik: They really knew how to crush hopes early.
Of course, not every year since 2004 wilted faster than tulip blossoms. Two years ago, the Mariners sank into last place April 18, briefly moved into second in mid-May and spent most of the remainder of season in third. They were finally eliminated from wild card contention on the final day of the regular season, largely due to a Felix Hernandez (10-2 loss) meltdown in Toronto five days earlier.
But in most years, the Mariners were over and out before the NBA/NHL playoffs commenced. That makes this season, nearing the quarter pole, a rare spectacle indeed.
In only 12 years of Seattle’s 40-year franchise history have the Mariners (21-13) reached the 34-game mark with a record at .500 or above. Only two of those seasons were in the past dozen years – 2014 (18-16) and 2007 (18-16), neither of which ended with a postseason appearance.
By contrast, the Los Angeles Angels, who open a three-game series with the Mariners Friday night at Safeco Field, and the low-budget Oakland A’s have nine such seasons each over the same span. In three of the 12 years between 2004-15, the Mariners never had the lead — not even for a minute — in the AL West.
As a further illustration of the current rarity, this is the first year since 2003 that the Mariners won at least 20 of their first 34 games and only the sixth time they have accomplished that feat. Seattle’s best starts (*= playoff team):
|2001||Lou Piniella||25-9||116-46*||AL single-season record; lost in ALCS|
|2002||Lou Piniella||24-10||93-69||2nd in AL West, missed postseason|
|1997||Lou Piniella||21-13||90-72*||1st AL West, lost to Balt in ALDS|
|2003||Bob Melvin||21-13||93-69||2nd AL West, missed postseason|
|2016||Scott Servais||21-13||TBD||Mariners 1.5-game lead in div.|
|1991||Jim Lefebvre||20-14||83-79||Fell out of 1st May 21, faded to fifth|
|1987||Dick Williams||19-15||78-84||Fell out of 1st May 14, finished 4th|
|1995||Lou Piniella||19-15||79-66*||Won AL West, lost to Clev in ALCS|
The Mariners have reached the postseason four times, 1995, 1997, 2000 and 2001 (in the four major pro sports, only the Buffalo Bills have been playoff-absent longer). Not on the above list is 2000, when Seattle went 18-16 in its first 34 and reached the playoffs as a wild card entry.
This 21-13 start, tied for third-best in franchise history, creates the possibility of a major move by the July 31 trade deadline — if, course, the Mariners are as relevant then as they are now (no guarantee, given the club’s historic capacity to disappoint).
Lincoln will still be CEO at the trade deadline (he will retire in August), but it is not likely that even the great obstructionist will stand in the way of his replacement, John Stanton, taking on salary if that becomes an issue.
The new Griffey
In July, Ken Griffey Jr. will become the first homegrown Mariner inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He enters as the most prolific vote-getter in the history of HOF balloting (99.3 percent). Few players get tagged as a “future Hall of Famer” as early as did Griffey, who received that label in his early 20s.
By age 24, Griffey was a five-time AL All-Star, a five-time Gold Glove winner and the recipient of three Silver Slugger awards. Not many major leaguers started their careers with such a flourish, but Mike Trout of the Angels has. At age 24, Trout is a four-time All-Star, has won an MVP and four Silver Slugger awards.
Zduriencik could have drafted Trout in 2009, but selected Dustin Ackley instead. Trout has played 684 MLB games. This is how remarkably similar his stats are to Griffey’s through Griffey’s first 684 (WAR=Wins Above Replacement):
|Mike Trout, Angels||781||146||420||.304||.397||.559||.956||37.9|
|Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners||779||118||424||.303||.372||.513||.885||30.1|
In four seasons, Trout has already led the AL in runs scored (2012, 2013, 2014), stolen bases (2012), total bases (2014), RBIs (2014), extra-base hits (2014), slugging percentage (2015) and OPS (2015). Trout is also rapidly developing into one of the all-time Mariners killers.
Trout has 12 four-hit games in his young career, three against Seattle. He has driven in five runs in a game six times, three against the Mariners. In a May 21, 2013 contest against Seattle, Trout had four hits, five RBIs and scored twice.
Trout also has a career .914 OPS against Seattle. With Trout shown for comparison purposes, this is how that compares to the best OPS numbers put up against the Mariners by Hall of Famers:
|George Brett||1999||.329||21||.931||Posted 1.328 OPS vs. Sea in 1980|
|Frank Thomas||2014||.280||36||.922||119 RBIs in 170 games vs. Mariners|
|Mike Trout||None||.311||15||.914||.363 BA, 1.444 OPS vs. Sea this year|
|Dave Winfield||2001||.291||32||.897||32 doubles, 3 triples, 115 RBIs|
|Wade Boggs||2005||.342||7||.890||51 2Bs, 4 3Bs vs.Sea in 184 games|
|Rod Carew||1991||.356||3||.889||.431 OBP vs. Seattle in 107 games|
|Eddie Murray||2003||.308||19||.862||93 RBIs in 150 games vs. Seattle|
|Jim Rice||2009||.303||23||.857||98 RBIs in 130 games vs. Seattle|
|Paul Molitor||2004||.318||17||.851||Mariners’ batting coach in 2004|
|Rickey Henderson||2009||.281||16||.828||Played 92 games for Seattle in 2000|
|Cal Ripken Jr.||2007||.296||32||.824||Hit .338 in Kingdome, .184 at Safeco|
A final note on Trout: He’s a career .368 hitter (25-for-68) with five home runs, 15 RBIs and a 1.106 OPS against Felix Hernandez. Trout and Hernandez will face each other Sunday at Safeco Field in the final game of a three-game series.