Don't sleep on the Seattle Mariners.
They've already come far in 2022, putting together a 79-61 record that has them within reach of their first postseason since 2001. Should they get in, the longest playoff drought not just in Major League Baseball, but in all four of the major North American men's professional sports leagues would finally be over.
Assuming nothing (including this article) jinxes this part of the Mariners' voyage, they would then look to go where the franchise has never been: the World Series.
Are we getting ahead of ourselves? Yeah, maybe. But you'll have to pardon us for having a hard time not getting sucked in to the "team of destiny" thing the Mariners have going on. Their 50-22 record since June 21 is the best in the American League, with six of those wins coming in dramatic fashion via walk-offs at T-Mobile Park.
The most recent and surely the most dramatic of these was on Sunday, when sluggers Julio Rodríguez and Eugenio Suárez washed away the bad taste of Atlanta's five-run comeback in the top of the ninth with game-winning home runs in the bottom half of the inning.
Though the Mariners are locked in a tight three-way race with the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays for the American League's top wild-card spot, there isn't much in the way of imminent danger to their playoff destiny. According to FanGraphs, there's a 99.8 percent chance that Seattle's playoff drought will indeed come to an end.
As they would have to earn their way to the American League Division Series by winning a best-of-three series in the AL Wild Card Round, the Mariners wouldn't have the easiest route to the World Series within the playoffs.
And yet, we propose that these Mariners are the last opponent anybody should want in the American League playoff field.
The Mariners Starting Rotation Is Made for October
If a pitching staff wants to survive in the postseason, obviously the best thing it can do is not give up runs. But since that's much easier said than done, there is that other useful trick that's more readily attainable: win the strikeout battle.
Out of 376 playoff games between 2012 and 2021—a decade's worth that coincides with the initial expansion of the wild-card round—the team whose pitching staff recorded more strikeouts than the other won the game 206 times. That's a .548 winning percentage.
As good omens go, this is actually a twofold one for the Mariners.
At 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings, Seattle starters have the AL's second-best strikeout rate since Aug. 3. Far from some random date, that's the date that flame-throwing All-Star Luis Castillo made his Seattle debut after coming over from the Cincinnati Reds.
There's no ignoring the tone Castillo has set, particularly for reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray and rookie George Kirby. Combined, the three aces have pitched to a 2.22 ERA with 143 strikeouts against only 24 walks over 125.2 innings since Castillo's arrival.
Meanwhile, young right-hander Logan Gilbert has been mowing 'em down in September. Shifting to higher fastballs and lower sliders is clearly working, as he's punched out nine batters over six innings in each of his two starts this month.
As he's a generally reliable southpaw with a 3.89 ERA this season, the Mariners may not be able to avoid keeping Marco Gonzales out of their playoff rotation. But given that he has about half as many strikeouts (88) as innings pitched (159.2), Seattle's most threatening playoff rotation is surely the one in which the swing-and-miss guys take precedence.
The Mariners Bullpen Is Also Built for October
And now for the other half of the aforementioned twofold good omen for the Mariners: Their top relievers are also perfectly capable of playing the strikeout game.
The key date here is July 9. That's when top prospect Matt Brash made the leap from the minors to the big club's bullpen, thus kicking off a stretch in which said pen has thrived on a nasty right-handed foursome of Brash, Andrés Muñoz, Paul Sewald and Erik Swanson. Their last 100 appearances have yielded a 1.99 ERA and 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
Even though his fastball has been sitting just south of 98 mph, it's more so Brash's breaking stuff that steals the show when he pitches:
For his part, Muñoz is essentially the platonic ideal of an overpowering reliever. He's been averaging (yes, averaging) 100.6 mph on his fastball over the last three months, though he can just as easily beat hitters with a slider that regularly tops 90 mph:
For theirs, fellow righties Penn Murfee and Matthew Festa are more than just background characters in Seattle's bullpen. The former is averaging better than a strikeout per inning for the season, while the latter's modest strikeout numbers are nonetheless paired with a whiff rate in the 88th percentile.
Whatever opponents the Mariners come across in October wouldn't necessarily be out of the woods even in games where they're able to put their share of balls in play. That would still mean contending with a defense that ranks fourth in the majors with its efficiency at turning balls in play into outs.
The Mariners Offense Has a Not-So-Secret Weapon
Offensively speaking, the biggest black mark on Seattle's offense is its batting average. At .230, the Mariners rank 25th in the majors in that department.
Yet that's not to be mistaken for a sign that Mariners hitters give away more outs than they should. Even their middle-of-the-pack strikeout rate obscures that they have a handful of guys who make consistent contact. Namely, Ty France, J.P. Crawford, Adam Frazier and Carlos Santana.
Even better, the Mariners hit the long ball.
Seattle Mariners @Mariners
.<a href="https://twitter.com/JRODshow44?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@JRODshow44</a>'s first home run in the bigs goes 4️⃣5️⃣0️⃣ feet! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SeaUsRise?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SeaUsRise</a> <a href="https://t.co/RsJyltpx9r">pic.twitter.com/RsJyltpx9r</a>
Seattle's 169 home runs rank fifth in the American League, and they've been coming more frequently of late. Whereas the Mariners averaged 1.1 home runs per game in the first half, they're at 1.4 per game since the All-Star break.
As they have 78 long balls between them, Seattle's power display has mostly been the Rodríguez, Eugenio Suárez and Cal Raleigh Show. But there may yet be more to come from other regulars. Mitch Haniger and Jesse Winker, especially, have only 20 home runs between them after slamming a combined 63 in 2021.
If more power does indeed come, the Mariners would be an even better fit for still another tried-and-true playoff mold. Teams that won the home run battle in a given playoff game also won the game itself at a .593 clip between 2012 and 2021.
Oh, and the Mariners Beat Good Teams
Speaking of winning percentages, ".536" is another figure that bodes well for Seattle.
This is the rate at which the Mariners won games against other clubs with records of .500 or better. It's the third-best mark among AL clubs, and it's not misleading even though it belies a 7-12 performance opposite the AL West-leading Houston Astros.
The Mariners are otherwise 17-10 against the other four clubs they could potentially face in the AL playoff field: Tampa Bay, Toronto and the New York Yankees. They won their season series against the Yankees and Blue Jays and were outscored by only five runs even in losing five of seven to the Rays.
Though not a guarantee, a pre-proven ability to beat other good teams has a way of portending success in the playoffs. Throughout all of MLB history, only 27 of 240 league champions had a sub-.500 record against winning teams in the regular season.
Look, we're not under any delusions that the Mariners will be a popular favorite to represent the American League in the World Series, much less to win the darn thing. The Astros are surely the big bads in the AL, and Atlanta, the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets are arguably even scarier in the National League.
Nevertheless, all we're saying is that the Mariners are about as ready for the playoffs as a team that hasn't been in 21 years can possibly be.