Are the Mariners Doing Well?: Mathematically, the Answer is “Maybe”

Sean Wu // The Watchdog

In just over two months, the Seattle Mariners are undoubtedly the most unique team in baseball. At a respectable 31-27 record throughout 58 games, they lead the American League West, but with a -7 run differential. Of course, this isn’t the first time the Mariners have had the opportunity to dance with the Pythagorean win percentage.

Pythagoras was a Greek philosopher from the sixth century BCE who was credited with many mathematical and scientific discoveries, possibly the most instantly recognizable being the Pythagorean theorem. The theorem states that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. It would become an essential function of geometry until 1981, when Bill James would invoke Pythagoras’ name once more, but for a different purpose.

James is a statistician from the University of Kansas and, possibly more important, a baseball fan. In 1977, at the age of 28, he published his first in a series of annual statistical analyses of the previous MLB season, titled “Baseball Abstract”. He has since been credited with the introduction of many metrics we still use today to analyze players and teams:

  • Game score is a tallied number that demonstrates how dominant a pitcher was in their start. Interestingly enough, the highest game score (in a regulation nine-inning game) of all time didn’t belong to a no-hitter or perfect game. That feat goes to Kerry Wood, who on May 6, 1998, struck out 20 batters while allowing just one hit en route to winning Rookie of the Year.
  • Range factor and defensive efficiency rating are two of the first ever attempts to quantify just how good someone was at defending. While even today’s metrics are flawed, both are still used even today on the largest stat-tracking hub on the internet, Sports Reference. Fun fact: Seattle Mariner Mike Cameron makes an appearance in the top 10 range factor list across a single season for his performance in 2003.
  • Similarity scores were devised as a rudimentary way to compare players across generations of baseball. Specifically, this would allow a hypothetical analysis of a current player to see if they were on track to make the Hall of Fame. Unsurprisingly, Los Angeles Angel Mike Trout compares closest to Duke Snider, a hall-of-famer with 400 home runs from the 1950s.

And finally, we have the Pythagorean expectation, a relatively simple formula that calculates the amount of runs a team scores versus allowing them to give them their expected win percentage through however many games. Remember the -7 number I mentioned earlier? The formula suggests that the Mariners should sit at 28-30, three wins down from their current placement and somehow still tied for first in their division.

Any Mariner fans reading this might be familiar with this discussion, and for good reason. The 2021 Mariner team, by virtue of the Pythagorean expectation, should have supposedly won 76 games. Instead, they won 90. Their 697 runs scored was tied for 8th worst in baseball with the 77-win Detroit Tigers. Their 748 runs allowed was just above league average and eight below, you guessed it, the 77-win Detroit Tigers. On Aug. 24 of that year, they went 6-3 on a road trip where they were outscored by nine runs. Manager Scott Servais then declared that they indeed had a negative run differential, but also that they measured by “fun differential”. Sure enough, they rode that wave the entire year before barely missing out on the playoffs. For context, in 2023, two teams made the playoffs with 90 wins.

This is a very long-winded explanation that ends with me saying I simply do not know if the Mariners are good. I’m not sure anybody really is. They have scored 211 runs, which is tied for second-to-last in baseball. Joined at the bottom in the tiebreaker are the Miami Marlins, who are boasting a 20-37 record, the worst in the National League.

Seattle’s pitching has been its bright spot, which surprises nobody. Their current mark of 218 runs allowed is well above the league average, and just six runs behind the Cleveland Guardians, who have 37 wins and are just a game out of first place in the American League.

The argument among fans has been that if the offense can get it together, this team can really shock the world. But the inverse is also true; if the pitching regresses even slightly, the season might be dead in the water.

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