— Sports World Report (@sportswr) March 3, 2015
Trivia question: Which team allowed the fewest runs in the majors in 2014?
No, it wasn't the Kansas City Royals with that knockout bullpen and great defense or the Washington Nationals with that stellar rotation. The Seattle Mariners allowed 554 runs, one fewer run than the Nationals, despite a staff lacking in big names beyond Felix Hernandez. They did it with a defense that, while much improved from 2013, wasn't anything special -- 19th in the majors with minus-11 defensive runs saved -- and a rotation that included scrap-heap pickup Chris Young and Roenis Elias, a middling prospect plucked out of Double-A. Sure, playing in Safeco Field helped, but Seattle even gave 21 starts to Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Maurer, who combined for a 5.96 ERA.
King Felix was a beast, of course, but the bullpen was key to the run prevention, leading the majors with a 2.59 ERA. The depth and dominance allowed manager Lloyd McClendon to pull his starters early -- he led the American League in "quick hooks" as defined by "The Bill James Handbook."
Still, the Mariners missed the wild-card game by one win as the offense was once again weak, finishing tied for 11th in the AL in runs and 12th in the park-adjusted wRC+ metric. Jerry Crasnick writes today about the Mariners' attempts to provide more help for Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, but another question lingers: How much will the pitching staff regress in 2015?
Now, that's not a given. The King is still here, the bullpen returns virtually intact and Taijuan Walker and James Paxton have the potential to be upgrades over Young and Elias, so maybe the pitching/defense remains at the same level. But consider: The 554 runs the Mariners allowed were the fewest by an AL team in a non-strike season since the 1975 Orioles allowed 553. Even in this pitching-dominant era, it's asking a lot for the Mariners to repeat that run prevention.
As a little study I looked at the top three run-prevention teams in each league from 2010 to 2013 to see how they fared the following season. Here's a table that summarizes those 24 teams:
• The teams allowed an average of 33 more runs the following season. (Keep in mind that run scoring has gone down since 2010, from 4.38 runs per game in 2010 to 4.07 in 2014.)
• Six of the 24 teams did allow fewer runs the next season.
• Not surprisingly, these teams were generally successful, averaging 91 wins per season (the 2012 Mariners being the only one with a losing record). The following season they averaged 86 wins per season.
So let's assume the Mariners allow 33 more runs than in 2014 -- that's 587 runs allowed, still a figure that would have ranked behind only Oakland in the 2014 American League.
If they allow 587 runs, how many will they have to score to win, say, 92 games? Using the Pythagorean Expectation formula, they would have to score 678 runs to win 92, or 44 more runs than last year. To win 90 games, it would be 664 runs, a 30-run improvement.
Is that doable? It certainly seems doable. Not just because of the additions of Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano and Rickie Weeks, but in part because the Mariners gave a lot -- a lot -- of plate appearances to awful hitters in 2014, guys such as James Jones, Corey Hart, Justin Smoak and Kendrys Morales. Remember Abe Almonte, the Opening Day center fielder? Or Stefen Romero, who somehow milked 190 PAs despite a .234 OBP? Or Chris Denorfia? Those seven players accounted for 19 percent of Seattle's plate appearances; Morales was the best of the bunch with a .207/.285/.347 line.
The Mariners will need Mike Zunino (.254 OBP) and Austin Jackson (.267 OBP after coming over from Detroit) to get on base more, Dustin Ackley to have more than six good weeks and more of the same from Cano and Seager.
That should give them a respectable offense. If Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma remain healthy and the bullpen doesn't implode, you're looking at Seattle's first playoff team since 2001.