When the Buffalo Bills made the NFL postseason last winter, the Seattle Mariners took sole possession of the longest playoff drought in the Big Four in America. Before we leave the NFL behind, I would like to point out that my wife is from the home of the Steelers and I have quite a few friends there, so I've certainly heard my fair share of jokes at the Cleveland Browns' expense. It's easy for me to forget that the Mariners have it even worse by one year, having not made the playoffs since 2001. Way back when Ichiro made his stateside debut. When we first met Wikipedia and the iPod. When Train unleashed the horrifying anathema that is "Drops of Jupiter" upon the world.
As it stands today in mid-June of 2018, with about two-fifths of the season behind us, the Mariners are in the lead in the AL West, despite grazing in the same divisional pastures as the reigning-champion Astros and their seemingly unholy/divinely-blessed rotation. Regardless of that, Seattle sits on a 43-24 record, so it's time to see what's happened and whether there is a realistic expectation that Seattle can hold on to a postseason spot for the remainder of the season and break the longest postseason curse in major American professional sports.
The Mariners have arrived at this point despite some serious issues this season. The biggest of those would likely be the loss of Robinson Cano to an 80-game suspension for a failed banned-substance test in mid-May. Cano had started off the year showing improved patience at the plate (12.4 BB%) and was putting up overall numbers (131 wRC+) that indicated he might rejuvenated and on his way to an elite season. Until, that is, his rejuvenation was called into question.
While the Mariners were as ready as they could be for the loss of Cano, having acquired second baseman Dee Gordon over the offseason from the Marlins in order to play in the outfield, Gordon hasn't exactly been the hitter GM Jerry Dipoto was hoping for in the trade (.279/.299/.356, 82 wRC+, 0.4 fWAR). At the very least, Gordon has kept second base from becoming a black hole in the M's lineup while Cano is on the shelf. First base, on the other hand, has been a bit more black-hole-ish, with Ryon Healy, Dan Vogelbach and company combining for -0.1 fWAR (26th in MLB).
There have been problems on the other side of the ball, as well. As a longtime denizen of San Francisco, I bore witness to the Giants' rolling out of Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum for many, many years of painful starts, so I can certainly relate to the mixture of fear and hope (but mostly the former) that Mariners fans must endure when Felix Hernandez takes the ball every fifth day. He's currently posting a 5.70 ERA/4.77 FIP and his peripherals (7.45 K/9, 3.49 BB/9, 1.28 HR/9) don't exactly provide a lot of hope that he's going to turn things around.
But, those issues aside, some things have been working out very well, as they surely must for a team to be leading its division. While King Felix has been looking a little less regal, the Mariners' rotation has been instrumental to their success. James Paxton has ridden a higher, different-look fastball and a new and improved curveball to the best overall results of his career (3.02 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 11.18 K/9, 2.52 BB/9, 0.91 HR/9). Marco Gonzales is off to an auspicious start (3.28 ERA, 3.33 FIP) in his first full post-Tommy John season.
Jean Segura has been having the kind of season Dipoto was hoping for when they traded Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte for Mitch Haniger and Segura in 2016 and then signed him to a five-year extension in the middle of the 2017 season. He's hitting .346/.367/.487 for a 137 wRC+ and has contributed 2.7 fWAR to Seattle's cause thus far. Were we not living in a golden age of shortstops, we'd probably be paying more attention to the offensive season that Segura is having, but it suffices to say that he's been very, very good. The aforementioned Haniger is having a very nice season of his own, with a 137 wRC+ to match Segura. We shant neglect to mention that he bullpen has been quite good, with a collective 3.3 fWAR that puts them in 3rd place in MLB.
If we step back and look at some big picture numbers for the team as a whole, there are certainly some numbers that paint a slightly less rosy picture. For one, the M's +25 run differential isn't quite as impressive as the Astros' +130. Seattle literally has a -105 run differential compared to the team they are more or less tied with for the division lead. They're not even in second place in the division when it comes to run differential, as the Angels have a +30 differential.
How can they have that kind of record with that kind of run differential? For starters, the Mariners are 21-9 in one-run games. They are also 6-0 in extra innings games. That former stat is statistically unlikely to continue for the rest of the season. The latter is largely a byproduct of the former, and Seattle probably won't win all of its extra-inning games this season.
If you add it all up, the Mariners are definitely getting more than a little lucky. The Mariners are currently exceeding their Pythagorean record by an MLB-leading +7 games. The Astros, to contrast, are at -5. By BaseRuns, Seattle sits at +6 with the Astros at -2. Not that we haven't seen teams ride a bit of one-run game luck all the way to a postseason berth. In fact, we've seen it pretty recently, when the 2016 Rangers set the all-time one-run game winning-percentage record by going 36-11 in one-run games and, sure enough, made the postseason, despite posting only a +8 run differential.
While Seattle has clearly enjoyed its fair share of one-run luck this season, one big ol' chunk of good news is that part of that is due to the previously mentioned fact that their bullpen has been quite good. You're more likely to win close ballgames when you have a good bullpen. Another chunk of positivity is that (as always with teams that have enjoyed a bit of luck) Seattle doesn't have to return-to-sender any of their wins. While the Astros are clearly still the favorites to win the AL West, given their lineup's latent talent, their rotation's patent talent and the fact that they are on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of Pythagorean profiting, the Mariners are more than a reasonable bet to make the postseason this year.
Fangraphs currently has Seattle's playoff odds at 67.1% and Baseball Prospectus has them even higher, at 74.2%. Whichever odds you prefer, Seattle has the highest likelihood of any non-division leading team other than the Red Sox to make the postseason. By Baseball Prospectus' baseball prospectus-ing, the Mariners actually have a higher chance of making the postseason than any individual team in the NL West. This might seem strange, until you consider the fact that there really aren't that many AL teams even sniffing at a postseason spot right now.
We're about a month and a half away from the trade deadline and there are seven teams in the American League above .500. Of those seven, the team with the worst record, Oakland, is 8.5 games back from a Wild Card spot. The Angels are the next closest, at only 6.0 games back, and there are now question marks regarding the rest of Shohei Ohtani's season (which is both extremely unfortunate for both the Angels and humanity in general).
Having covered those bases, there's still an awful lot of baseball left. (So much baseball.) To be clear, I am certainly not trying to do anything jinxy here. Not that one baseball writer has that kind of power. After all, there is so much baseball left. (So much baseball.) But the Mariners have put themselves in an extremely good position so far this season, and they have plenty of players who could improve if some of the players who have been leading the charge take a step back. We'll be halfway through the season soon enough and the Mariners are leading their division and have a clear path to the postseason, even if there's quite a bit of baseball left. (So much baseball.) Having said my three "Hail Marys" to the baseball gods, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that the Mariners make the postseason this year and break the curse. May our collective curse of "Drops of Jupiter" be broken and discarded into the abyss along with it.