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July 31, 2010 at 9:16 AM

A few more notes about the Mariners and situational hitting

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Some things occured to me after writing last night’s post, which was done after midnight local time as I sat in the pressbox, so time was of the essence.
It’s important to remember that situational hitting also involves plain old hitting. Not just giving up outs for the sake of giving them up. If you have a runner at second base, nobody out and Michael Saunders at the plate, giving up an out by bunting the runner to third base is never going to be the statistically acceptable thing to do.
If it’s an extra innings situation and you need one run, that’s a different story and I can see why managers would do it. There, you’re going for the one “guaranteed” run rather than letting a potententially big inning play itself out. In theory, you still have a better chance of scoring if you let guys swing away with three outs to play with and a runner on second than two outs with a guy at third.
But in extra innings, with the pressure on, it does ease some of the stress when hitters know they can get a guy home from third with the winning run just by making contact and hitting a fly ball to any field. It gives fewer options to a pitcher because even a ground ball hit to the right spot will score the runner from third.
So, that’s a big reason why it’s done, regardless of what the odds suggest.
But the goal with runners on base is normally to get as many runs as you possibly can.
So, with no out and runners on first and second, you aren’t doing yourself any real favors by bunting both men over to second and third base. Because when you do that, the likelihood of both guys scoring diminishes.
In last night’s game, with a runner on second and one out, you really need Russell Branyan to make solid contact with the ball and get a base-hit to drive the runner home. The goal is not to have him ground the ball to the right side or hit it in the air to center or right field so the runner can take third.
That’s the very least you want him to do. Make contact someplace so the runner can advance. You really want Branyan to get a single, double or home run. But if all else fails, at least move the guy up a base. It helps the team more than a strikeout. But no, it’s not your first preference. Branyan should not be trying to ground the ball to the right side in that situation. He should be trying to hit a line drive by selecting only hittable pitches to swing at.
With a runner on second base and nobody out, you very much need to at least get the guy over to third. Nobody should really be trying for a groundout in that situation. Or a flyball out. The hitter should be trying to put solid contact on the ball. A good hitter will be trying to take ball center or away if they’re right-handed and that will usually move the runner up a base if good contact is made. If the ball goes through for a hit, the run will often score.
But that’s not what we’ve seen.

From the Mariners, we’ve seen guys swinging at bad pitches out of the strike zone. We’ve seen right handed hitters pull a lot of balls right to where fielders are positioned to defend them.
Franklin Gutierrez has spoiled the “contact play” on more than one occasion by grounding the ball right to the third baseman and leaving the runner a dead duck at home.
Jose Lopez has grounded the ball to third or shortstop on too many occasions to begin double-plays.
We’ve seen Mariners hitters swing at too many bad pitches early in counts — likely because they’re over-anxious with runners in scoring position — and set themselves up to be struck out later on in the at-bats on pitches that don’t give them a chance to do anything productive with the ball.
I’m not the biggest fan of bunting in most situations. I think the American League is different from the National League, where the whole small ball thing is really practiced to a greater extent because you have the pitcher hitting as almost an automatic out each time he comes up. Same for a lot of the No. 8 hitters. If you know a guy’s almost never going to get a hit anyway, then at least having him move the runners over productively makes sense.
But I didn’t understand why the Mariners had Ichiro bunting in extra innings against a clearly rattled Bobby Jenks back in Seattle last week when they got Jack Wilson on with a leadoff infield single. Yeah, you’re playing for a run, but giving up an extra out to a pitcher in that situation is just dumb. Especially with a .300 hitter at the plate.
So, that’s the tricky part of situational hitting.
Applauding players for getting bunts down isn’t always the right thing.
Now, it’s a different story if you’re facing Cliff Lee and have two on, none out and a guy coming up who is 1-for-15 lifetime off Lee and just getting dominated by him. In that situation, bunting the runners over may not be the statistically smartest thing to do — because you’ll always have a better chance of scoring more runs with zero outs than you will with one. But if the guy coming up looks like an automatic out in any event, then at least moving the runners up a base can help. And against tough pitchers, managers will want to get at least one run in scoring situations.
Yes, I know the studies suggest playing for one run in some situational hitting situations is not the smartest thing to do. But remember, we are only talking about odds in those situations. There is no guarantee that a team swinging away with two on and none out will come away with any runs once an inning ends.
So again, we come to a crossroads between theory and reality.
Some managers, if their team is struggling, will look to take the one guaranteed run early in a game just to have some momentum on their side, rather than roll the dice and risk getting no runs by swinging away — even if the odds say they might do better with that latter strategy.
It’s not always cut and dried. One run here, another run there, and all of a sudden, with a 3-0 lead and Felix Hernandez on the mound, you aren’t necessarily worried about not playing “the odds” perfectly.
But what it boils down to, really, as we discussed last night. Are productive at-bats. Swinging at good pitches and laying off the bad ones. Working counts into your favor so you aren’t reduced to pulling balls on the ground to the left side.
In situational hitting situations, any manager out there will take a line drive up the middle every time rather than guys giving up outs. It’s a matter of not putting yourself behind the eight ball as a hitter with bad pitch recognition. When you’re ahead 2-0, or 2-1, or 3-1 in the count, you can afford to wait for your pitch and make sure that, even if your ball is caught by somebody for an out, you’re at least putting on solid contact and doing something with your swing that can help your team.
A scorching line drive caught by the left fielder? Hey, that’s just bad luck. But a weak fly ball lofted to the left fielder with a guy on second and none out? Or on third with one out? That’s just poor situational hitting. And the M’s have to break the habit, because they don’t get enough home runs or extra base hits in any situation to be able to compensate for the number of unproductive outs they’ve made.



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