|Robinson Cano, presumably winning another game for the Mariners|
I loved that game. It instantly became one of my favorite games I have ever attended. The Mariners entered that game in first place and held on to first place at the end of the night. At the time, it was the latest the Mariners had gone in a season in first place since 2009. I got to thinking, and I am quite certain that last Tuesday's game was the last time I had watched a first-place M's team in person since 2001.
2001, literally a half a lifetime ago for me. So Tuesday was kind of a big deal, in only the way a die-hard Mariners fan could find a Tuesday night dusted with patrons a big deal. If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear it, it still counts in the standings, thank you very much.
Tonight I listened to the Mariners take out the Astros in Houston to improve to 4-0 on their current road trip. They are in first place, 2.5 games up on the Rangers. They own the second best record in the American League at the moment to boot.
In other words, the Mariners are good - legitimately good! - at least at the moment.
It will not be just for this moment though. The Mariners are for real. There are no two ways around it. The earlier we all accept this the earlier we get to enjoy the ride this team is about to take us on.
Let's start with the preseason expectations. I had the Mariners projected as essentially a .500 team (80-82 to be more precise). The paltry record was good enough for a projected second place finish though, five games behind the Astros.
Let's assume that the preseason predictions are perfectly accurate and that the results so far are completely fluky. We would then assume that teams win and lose at projected rates the rest of the season. The Astros are already 7.5 games behind the Mariners, and they have 29 fewer games to make up that ground. Even the 80-82 preseason version of the Mariners would have to be considered favorites to win the AL West at this moment.
However, these are not the Mariners of preseason predictions. They are better. In reality, 80-82 represented an average season, but every team has a range of possibilities. The Mariners are clearly trending towards an upper end outcome.
The Mariners would be expected to run a roughly 0 run differential as a .500 team. They would be expected to give up as many runs as they score. The Mariners are already running a +33 run differential on the year, which makes sense because they are well above .500 so far. The M's wins are far from smoke and mirrors. Underlying numbers that predict wins line up with their record so far.
Not-so-fun-fact: the Mariners have only had one season since 2003 where they had a positive run differential (2014, when they went 87-75 and just missed the playoffs). That's despite three winning seasons since 2003.* A positive run differential in itself is a big deal in modern Mariners history.
*One of those winning seasons with a negative run differential convinced Bill Bavasi to trade Adam Jones for Erik Bedard, because Bavasi was convinced that the Mariners were one pitcher away from contending. Bill Bavasi probably did not pay much attention to run differential.
We have seen plenty of bad baseball since 2001, along with a few seasons that masqueraded as good despite some underlying stats that suggest the teams the M's fielded were not all that good. The 2016 Mariners certainly have their flaws, but there will be plenty of time to wring our hands over those flaws as this team chases down the M's first playoff appearance since 2001. The 2016 Mariners are a legitimately decent team playing in a spectacularly mediocre AL West. This could very well be the best team the M's have fielded in over a decade and, unlike those forgotten 2002 and 2003 squads, they don't face brutal competition.
Jump on the bandwagon. This team is not a lock to make the playoffs, but they are the most promising group in a long time. Of course baseball is most fun when a team gets hot like the Mariners are right now, but this team has staying power. At the very least we have a fun summer at the ballpark to look forward to, and it just might yield a fun fall too.