The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 19 – The Seattle Mariners

Downtown skyline with Kingdome, 1990

Image by Seattle Municipal Archives via Flickr

Nearing the completion of their 34th Major League season, the Seattle Mariners are one of just three MLB franchises to have never played in a World Series.  The other two are the Washington Senators/ Texas Rangers franchise and the Montreal Expos / Washington Nationals franchise.

They are also a team that has engaged in what I call a “Four Year False Start Period” where they suddenly improve by at least ten wins from one season to the next, show no regression in year three (but also don’t make the playoffs), then completely collapse back to their original level of hopelessness in year #4.

The four-year period I am specifically referring to in Mariners history took place during the 1983-86 seasons.  Here is their record in each of those four seasons:

1983:  60-102

1984:  74-88

1985:  74-88

1986:  67-95

You can see that Mariners fans would have felt some reason to be hopeful after the ’84 season, and that they might still have felt somewhat optimistic going into the 1986 season.  But after 1986, it must have been back to the drawing board.

Why does a team suddenly show noticeable improvement for one year, sustain that new level of competitiveness for a second year, then completely fall apart yet again?  At some point, I’ll turn this phenomenon into yet another series of blog-posts.

But for our purposes in this blog-post, let’s take a closer look at the Mariner’s 1984 season.

Often, when a team shows significant improvement as the Mariners did in 1984, it is  at least partially attributable to a wave of young talent arriving at the Major League level.  This accurately reflects what happened with the Seattle organization in ’84.

Specifically, two 23-year old prodigies suddenly burst upon the scene.  One was flame-throwing lefty Mark Langston.  The other was slugging first baseman Alvin Davis.  Davis and Langston achieved so much success in their first go ’round in the Majors that they finished 1-2, respectively, in Rookie of the Year voting at season’s end.

Let’s begin with the ROY, Alvin Davis.

1984 was Alvin Davis’ Best Forgotten Season.

When Davis completed the ’84 season, he had produced one of the best seasons in franchise history up to that point.  Granted, the M’s had only been around for eight years, but that doesn’t diminish the level of his accomplishments.

To begin with, Davis showed promising power in his initial year, slugging 27 home runs and finishing 4th in the A.L. in RBI’s with 116.  He showed good plate coverage, drawing 97 walks against just 78 strikeouts, and his on-base percentage was an impressive .391.

Davis also finished with a respectable .284 batting average, 34 doubles, and an OPS of .888.  His OPS+ (which takes into consideration a player’s home ballpark and the era in which he played) was 147, good for fifth place in the league.  He also finished 2nd in the league in Intentional Walks with 16.

Davis made the A.L. All-Star squad for the one and only time in his career in ’84.

For his efforts, he finished 12th in the A.L. MVP voting, certainly a promising start to what Mariners fans could expect to be a long and productive career.

Nevertheless, there were some warning signs even in ’84 that Davis might not be able to sustain that level of success, let alone build on it, over time.

Even in his rookie year, Alvin Davis possessed what are now commonly referred to as “Old Player Skills.” According to baseball statistician / guru / man-about-town Bill James, “Old Player Skills” are defined as:  Power, Walks, Lack of Speed, Low or Mediocre Batting Average.

Now, of course there is nothing wrong with a player displaying each of the first two skills on that list as a rookie.  Normally, however, it takes time for a player to fully realize his power potential, and strike zone judgment at the Major League level also usually requires a learning curve of a few years.

Speed is often a skill that separates a young rookie from his older teammates; if he begins his career slow afoot, he will be unable to beat out many infield hits, and his average will suffer accordingly.

Putting these four indicators together then, a young player with “Old Player Skills” generally has nowhere to go but down.  If he has already maxed out his power potential, has no speed to work with, and displays a curiously cautious  approach at the plate, he is not a player that has any significant room to grow as an athlete.

Alvin Davis showed just such a skill-set during his rookie campaign.  He stole five bases in nine attempts in his rookie year, then stole just two more bases  during the rest of his nine-year career!

He topped his 27 rookie year homers just once three years later when he hit 29. He also reached the 100 RBI mark only once more when he drove in an even 100 in 1987.

Despite a solid on-base percentage, he scored just 80 runs.

Even his initial .284 rookie year batting average was almost identical to his final career .280 batting average.

In short, although Davis’ rookie success helped Seattle improve by 14 wins in 1984 over the previous year, his lack of development was at least partially to blame for Seattle’s next prolonged slump a couple of years later.

Davis played just nine seasons in the Majors, all for the Mariners.  He did have three other seasons where his OPS was at least .875 or better, but topped a .900 OPS just once.  He hit 160 home runs and drove in 683 runs in his career.  But he never scored as many as 90 runs in a season, and his seven career steals were certainly not off-set by his ten career triples.

Clearly, then, Alvin Davis’ Best Forgotten Season was 1984.

His teammate, Mark Langston, would enjoy greater long-term success, but battled periods of inconsistency throughout his career.

Mark Langston, in 1984, was the epitome of raw, untamed talent.

Langston was thrown directly into a starting role in his rookie year, and he responded by posting a 17-10 record in 33 starts.  In 225 innings (forget pitch counts and innings limitations in those days), Langston struck out a league-leading 204 batters, but his wildness resulted in a league-leading 118 walks.

His ERA in 1984 was a respectable 3.40, but his WHIP was a troubling 1.360.

Langston’s 7.5 hits / nine innings was fourth best in the league, and his 8.16 K’s / nine innings paced the Junior Circuit.

Tough to hit, then, but a patient hitter could reach base against Langston.  But still, that raw potential.

Langston’s wildness, however, would catch up to him in his sophomore year when he walked 91 batters (against just 72 strikeouts) in 126 innings.  His ERA ballooned to 5.47, and his record was a dismal 7-14.

Just a couple of years later, though, Langston finally harnessed his stuff well enough to enjoy his finest overall season as a Mariner.

1987 was Mark Langston’s Best Forgotten Season.

It is no accident, too, that the Mariners enjoyed their best season up to that point as well, reaching 78 wins for the first time in team history.

Langston finished the ’87 season with 19-13 record, a career high 272 innings pitched, 14 complete games, three shutouts, and he led the league in strikeouts for the third time with a career high 262.

He won the first of his seven career Gold Gloves in ’87, made the All-Star team, and finished fifth in the A.L. Cy Young race.

One of the most durable, hard-throwing lefties in MLB history, Langston pitched at least 200 innings in ten of his sixteen seasons.  He struck out at least 200 hitters five batters, and topped 190 K’s in two other seasons.

Langston pitched in four All-Star games, and his 2,464 career strikeouts rank 32nd all-time.  A very good fielding pitcher as well, Langston won seven Gold Gloves in his career.

Yet Langston finished with a career record of just 179-158.  Certainly, he pitched on some bad teams, but his career ERA+ of just 108 indicates that despite all the strikeouts and a couple of dominating seasons, he was often just slightly better than your average replacement level pitcher.

In the end, nine seasons of 90 or more walks partially undermined what might have been an even better career.  Langston’s inability to ever seriously master the strike zone stunted not only his growth, but also the growth and development of the Mariners.*

The Mariners finally traded Langston in 1989, and he spent the next ten years pitching for the Expos (briefly), then the Angels (eight years) before finishing up his career with the Padres and Indians in ’98-’99.

Although he enjoyed an excellent season in 1991 with the Angels, Mark Langston’s Best Forgotten Season as a Mariner took place in 1987.

* By way of comparison, Nolan Ryan had 15 seasons of 90+ walks.  Randy Johnson had five. Sandy Koufax had four.  Roger Clemens had three.  Warren Spahn had two.  Tom Seaver had zero.

Author’s Note:  This Thursday, I plan on posting Part 20 of this series, focusing on the Minnesota Twins.

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