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July 30, 2010 at 10:16 PM

Situational hitting continues to plague the Mariners for second year running

There is a slight differentiation to be made when teams talk about situational hitting as opposed to hitting with runners in scoring position.
Runners in scoring position can involve a guy at second base with two out. That’s where some of the very correct arguments against the concept of clutch hitting come into play. Studies done on supposed “clutch hitting” shows that it really doesn’t exist as a skill for the most part.
In other words, a .300 hitter will bat .300 with RISP. A .200 hitter will do the same. In other words, a bad-hitting team like the M’s will hit just as badly with RISP.
And what do you know? Going into tonight, the M’s were hitting .236 as a team. And with RISP, they were hitting…you guessed it, .236.
I kid you not! The numbers usually won’t be that exact,but are usually close.
So, let’s get off RISP for a moment.
What we’re talking about here, and what frustrates manager Don Wakamatsu, is situational hitting. Because if you get a guy to third base with only one out, there are ways to score that runner without a hit.
You can hit a flyball and have the runner tag up. Hit a ground ball to the right side. You can put a squeeze play on. The flyball can often be the easiest way, which is why you’ll see sinkerballers so effective late. In those cases, the offensive team can put a “contact play” on where the runner breaks for home on contact and will usually score if the ball is hit anywhere but third base.
And another situation the Mariners are really bad at is when a runner gets to second base with nobody out. At that point, at the very least, you want to move the runner tio third with only one out.
But time and time again, we see the Mariners do anything but what needs to be done.
With no out and a runner on second, they have successfully moved the guy over just 35 percent of the time — tied for worst in the AL and below the 41 percent average. Texas is the best at doing it, at 46 percent. They are tied, somewhat surprisingly for that top spot with a pretty good Kansas City offense.
Next in line is Oakland (44 percent), which does a better job at the situational game than the M’s do while also not having an abundance of power. After that, at 43 percent, are the usual contender suspects Tampa Bay, the White Sox, the Angels and Twins, all at 43 percent.
Bottom line? Most of the good teams are above average. Bad teams like the M’s are right at the bottom with the Indians and…Yankees. Well, the Yanks are a good team. But when you can out-homer everybody, your situational game isn’t always as crucial.
For the M’s, it’s critical. With a runner at second and no out, the M’s will hit a flyball to left field or shallow center, making it impossible for the runner to tag from second and go to third. What you want is either a flyball to right or one hit deeply enough to center.
Then when the runner gets to third with only one out, the M’s do a little bit better. But still not enough like the good teams.

The M’s get the runner in from third 48 percent of the time, just below the 49 percent average and tied for eighth among the 14 teams.
Kansas City is again the best at this, followed by the White Sox, Angels, Yankees and even the Orioles as above average team. Something in common between them? From what I can see, they all have sluggers who can hit a flyball deep enough with guys on third.
These stats won’t always correlate with success, as you can see. But if you’re a team without home run power and limited extra-base ability, you can’t be below average in the big situational hitting stuff and expect to contend.
With a guy on third, we’ve seen the M’s ground the ball to third on contact plays. See them strike out without giving anyone a chance to advance, the way Josh Wilson did tonight. See them pop the ball up in the infield, as Justin Smoak did last night and many of his far-more-veteran teammates have done all year.
We see them ground into double plays. Or pop up bunt attempts. We saw Eric Byrnes not even attempt a bunt on a suicide squeeze — one for the record books.
This is what we’re really discussing when “situational hitting” comes up. This is what those spring training drills are all about.
It’s not the whole notion of clutch hitting.
Tonight’s game turned in the second inning, when the Mariners loaded the bases with none out and didn’t score. Wilson struck out and then Jack Wilson popped out.
But the big situational miscue was on Josh Wilson, not Jack Wilson.
So, what happens in those cases?
“You look at that first bases loaded situation, that whole inning, we talked about it in the dugout afterwards,” Wakamatsu said. “We’re just swinging at pitches out of the zone in situations where we don’t need to.”
The Mariners have been preaching a disciplined plate approach all year. The common misconception some fans have is that a disciplined approach means taking the first pitch. It doesn’t. Because if that first pitch is the best one you’ll see all night, you’re best off swinging.
Seattle’s problem, when hitters start making routine outs, is not recognizing the good pitches, then swinging at bad ones, as Wakamatsu said.
Later in tonight’s game, when Twins pitcher Scott Baker was throwing pitches too high, the M’s started laying off and making him come back down in the zone. That’s how you work a count. And when a pitcher lays one in there, first pitch or not, you drive the ball.
The M’s did a better job of getting runners on and waiting for their pitches later in the game.
Russell Branyan had a pair of doubles tonight. But even he struck out in a seventh inning situation with a runner on second and one out. That’s still a situation where situational hitting comes into play. At the very least, you want Branyan getting the runner to third base if he makes a second out. That way, a wild pitch can score the run. Or an error. We saw the Twins do that tonight when the runner took third on a groundout to the right side and then scored on Wilson’s error at third base.
We’ve seen the M’s score plenty of runs this year because of wild pitches playing a role. So, it’s not just a minor detail.
Branyan talked a bit about hitting with runners in scoring position. The same things he said could be applied to the more important aspects of situational hitting, especially the runner on third with fewer than two out stuff that has plagued Seattle all year.
“It’s a pressure situation when you’ve got guys on base and you’ve got runners out there,” Branyan said. “It’s pitchers doing a little bit more, trying to be finer with their pitches. As a hitter, we’re really trying to focus and get a good pitch up in the zone. It’s one of the toughest things in baseball, trying to hit with runners in scoring position.”
Yes, it is tough. There is nothing about major league baseball that is easy, no matter how simple we make it sound for you.
But other teams find it just a little easier than the Mariners do. Last year, the M’s were at 43 percent when it came to moving the runner over from second, better than the 35 percent clip they are now at.
From third base, they are slightly better this year at 48 percent compared to 47 percent in 2009. But the big dropoff this year has been in getting guys over from second so they’ll be at third with fewer than two out.
And they just can’t keep going backward on that.
Until they get better at it, they’ll have to watch other teams parade their mid-season, playoff push trade acquisitions out on the field — as the Twins did with Matt Capps tonight — while dreaming of a year their season won’t be over by July 31. Or May 15.



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