You couldn’t tell from some of the sleepy-headed hacks the Mariners took over their first five games, but their organizational philosophy is to control the zone.
Controlling the zone encourages batters to work from 2-0 counts and pitchers to work from 0-2 counts, primitive baseball reasoning that’s easier said than done. If nothing else, it’s an idea based on accentuating the positive while eliminating the negative.
But there’s another kind of zone I wish the team could control. It’s the zone between Edgar Martinez Drive and South Royal Brougham Way, where the Mariners enjoy every advantage of home except, uh, a home-field advantage.
Since the American League West expanded to five teams in 2013, the differential between home wins and road wins looks like this:
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Los Angeles Angels, plus-29.
Houston Astros, plus-25.
Oakland Athletics, plus-15.
Texas Rangers, plus-9.
Seattle Mariners, minus-5.
A meathead could score single digits on the Wonderlic Test and still determine which AL West team doesn’t fit into a pattern with the rest of the West.
The Mariners’ inability to hold serve in Seattle is bewildering. Oakland plays its home games in a dumpy stadium with the kind of plumbing problems best described as gross, and yet the A’s typically perform better there than on the road. The Rangers are planning to vacate a ballpark no older than my cell phone — they can’t stand the heat, apparently — and Angels owner Arte Moreno has made it known that he’s not thrilled with Angel Stadium, even though it was renovated in 1998.
Safeco Field, meanwhile, remains as lovely as it was for its 1999 midsummer opening, when Seattle fans marveled at the opportunity to savor a long sunset and even longer baseball game. (The Padres pushed across two runs in the top of the ninth to win, 3-2.)
Aside from the enlarged video board, expanded concession-stand menu and modest adjustment of the outfield fences, little about Safeco Field has changed. It’s still an ideal place to watch the Mariners, whether they win or lose.
Which brings me back to the control the zone mantra. The 2008 Mariners had a losing record at home. So did the Mariners of 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015.
Some of those teams were ill-equipped to win anywhere — the ’08 club, a hobo stew of veterans in decline and younger players with no upside, finished with 101 defeats — but there were other years when the home-road splits were baffling.
Lloyd McClendon’s 2014 Mariners, for instance, went 46-35 on the road, only to be deprived of a playoff berth, in a photo finish, because of their mediocre 42-40 mark at home.
Winning 46 of 81 on the road typically translates into at least 90 victories overall, but the 2015 Mariners finished 87-75. Had they taken care of business where they were supposed to take care of business, baseball’s longest postseason drought does not belong to Seattle.
What’s the deal? Is Safeco Field, which has an efficient plumbing system and provides a pleasant environment in the visiting clubhouse, too comfortable for the opponents?
Is it the crowd? When I notice college-aged spectators mingling on the terrace behind the fence in left-center, I have two thoughts.
My first thought is how perfect a place it is for college-aged spectators to mingle: With fresh air, beer taps flowing and blooper highlights put to music between innings, it beats a crowded bar any night of the week.
My second thought is that the spectators are not spectating. They’re enjoying the scene, but not participating in the scene.
It’s tempting to buy into the notion that Mariners fans are low-key because Seattle-area fans are, in general, low-key. Nonsense. A few hundred yards north of Safeco Field, the Seahawks benefit from what might be the most pronounced home-field advantage in professional sports.
Football crowds are more rowdy than baseball crowds, granted, and nothing is more important to the Mariners than promoting an atmosphere that’s fun for the whole family.
But there’s an edge that’s missing.
Mariners opponents should dread a three-game series in Seattle the way Seahawks opponents dread a Sunday afternoon in Seattle. They don’t. The fans are agreeable, the summer climate is agreeable, the first-class amenities of a beautiful ballpark are agreeable. What’s there to dread?
A home team determined to control the zone, surrounded by fans more engaged in the game than the frivolity, maybe that would be something to dread.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath