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April 29, 2011 at 9:10 AM

Mariners have seen some luck improve, now need to keep hitting balls in the air

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One thing we noticed in Detroit was just how many deep fly balls the Mariners hit. You had home runs in every game of that series, with the M’s managing to sweep the Tigers. Whether it was the home runs or deep double by Miguel Olivo, or the home runs and yesterday’s deep double by Justin Smoak, the M’s put some runs on the scoreboard in a hurry. Same with the late three-run homer by Luis Rodriguez. Much easier for a bullpen to close out a 7-2 game than a 4-2 game.
That Olivo was the big contributor throughout shows how some of Seattle’s luck turned for the better in this series. Olivo had posted a 23 percent line drive rate coming in — his best total since 2003 — but his batting average on balls in play was way down.
Now, his .294 batting average on balls in play is close to leading the team. It’s right up there with what would be considered “average” in baseball.
Chone Figgins is now up to .204 in such situations. While still not “normal” by any stretch, it’s better than being down at .160.
So, things began to even out a little. But this team continuing to win consistently is going to involve more than mere swings in luck. There are some areas the M’s can continue to help themselves in. And that’s what we should all be focused on now. It’s nice to celebrate a three-game sweep, which the team was full value for. But many teams in baseball sweep series. It’s not something they go on and on about. For those teams — good ones — the idea is to improve to the point where a sweep happens more than once every two or three months.
And so, the Mariners, happy as they are at sweeping, will realize they are still a team with an 11-15 record that could use improvment anywhere possible in order to sustain the winning beyond just one or two series.
One of those potential improvements would be to stop pounding balls into the ground when they swing. No team in the American League does this as much as the M’s, who have a 47.5 percent ground ball rate as an offense.

Now, it’s one thing if you are Ichiro, or Figgins, and have the speed to leg out infield singles. That’s one reason the M’s will probably never have the league’s lowest ground ball rate. When you have two speed guys like that atop the order — both lacking consistent home run power — you want them hitting balls closer to the ground. Figgins himself says that when he hits stuff in the air, he gets too much air under them and they wind up being caught the overwhelming majority of the time.
So, forget those two. They can pound away at the dirt.
But what you want is for some of those other guys to hit more balls in the air with authority.
So, there’s room to improve there. The M’s currently sit middle-of-the-pack in things like line drives and batting average on balls in play. They are among the best in baseball at seeing pitches and drawing walks. So, what’s been missing? Well, until the past three days, it was run-scoring. And what’s happened the past three days? A whole lot of balls hit in the air.
Olivo now has one of the lowest groundball-to-flyball ratios on the team at 0.83. That’s good. He’s a guy who was brought in for some power and he’s not going to get that hitting the ball on the ground and trying to leg out infield hits. He just had a monster series that has transformed his overall numbers in a way you don’t often see after a three-game stretch. Prior to the Detroit series, when you took away the “luck” factor on his line drives that were being caught, he was still hitting too many balls on the ground and not enough in the air.
Jack Cust is another guy who was brought in for power and he’s also another who has hit too many balls on the ground. Yes, there is some “luck” factor involved with him since his .280 batting average on balls in play is below what he normally does for his career. But he’d probably make more of his own luck if he hit some line drives and flyballs to the gaps rather than pulling grounders to first and second base.
Cust currently has the second highest ground ball rate on the team after Ichiro, at 54 percent. He’s hitting flyballs at a lesser rate than Jack Wilson. That won’t do.
Someone else who could probably hit a few more line drvies and flyballs? Believe it or not, it’s Smoak. He’s lagging a bit behind in both categories, though it was nice to see those three home runs in three games and that long double yesterday that would have cleared the fence in many other ballparks.
But prior to that, Smoak had been getting a lot of his hits on the ground. His batting average on balls in play is a team-high .333. And that figure doesn’t even account for home runs, so it’s on all the other stuff that he’s been doing pretty well on the luck side of the equation. Now, he should have a high average on such balls in play if he remains a .300 hitter. But that’s still a bit high and you would expect some of that luck to “normalize” a bit, where the grounders don’t get through as much.
This is not meant to suggest Smoak has done poorly. He’s the best feel-good story of the season so far. His progress is well ahead of where many thought he’d be and it’s great that he’s shown power from both sides of the plate.
So, best that he continues to hit long, powerful stuff over the fence, to the gaps and over the heads of outfielders. That will help to offset the ground balls that inevitably end up in the gloves of fielders at some point.
Anyhow, we don’t have to get all scientific about this. You saw what some deep fly balls did for the Mariners in the Detroit series. They scored 24 runs and 10 of them came on just four swings via the long ball.
Seattle’s bad luck began to change a bit — as evidenced by the Olivo homers. One deflected off a glove and another bounced off the top of the fence. But he had to hit those balls deep for the luck factor to come into play.
Sometimes, you make your own luck. The M’s can start making a bit more of theirs if they stop hitting grounders at a higher rate than every other AL team.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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