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February 2, 2012 at 10:45 AM

Mariners will be looking for better approach and discipline at the plate this season

Now that we know the Mariners will be staying young for the next little while, it may be best to explore some of the things to look for in 2012. Too many people will be focused on things like won-lost record while missing the bigger picture of what’s going on.
The won-lost record won’t tell you much until it starts approaching 90. I’ve seen too many teams soar past 80 wins and have it mean absolutely nothing the following year. That said, if the Mariners can hit 80 wins this season, it should be a good thing. But if they don’t, it doesn’t mean the year was a waste.
But there are other measurements that will carry importance. And one of the biggest will be in seeing how much improvement the younger players are making in terms of their approach and discipline at the plate.
We touched on this back in September, when talking about the “control ratios” of players — namely, their walk-rates, walks-to-strikeouts rate and their strikeouts-per-plate-appearance rate. At the time, Dustin Ackley was the only Mariners regular who had his numbers where you want them to be in all three categories.
Are the Mariners concerned about this? You’d better believe it. There’s a reason the team has been reorganizing things throughout their minor league levels the past six months or so. Several of the Mariners sitting on the cusp of the upper minors and major league entry ranks strike out far too often. And it isn’t always easy to break the habit. So, the team is trying to address problems in the minors before they get guys up to the majors.
The alarming rate at which the major league team was striking out in September — en route to a new franchise record for whiffs — will have to come down before this squad can even dream of sniffing the playoffs. It’s going to take plenty of work behind the scenes, especially as players adjust to Eric Wedge’s demands for an “attack” mentality when they step into the batter’s box.
Wedge doesn’t want players trying to take walks. He wants them swinging at hittable pitches and doing something with them first. In the absence of hittable pitches, he’ll accept them taking their walks. But too many hitters just lacked the proper focus at the plate last season. They either swung at bad pitches or let hittable ones drift on by. That’s all part of plate discipline and the Mariners plan to make it a top priority when the team reports to spring training this month.
Now, a look at some of the team’s hitters and where they sit.
Photo Credit: AP

Sticking with our theme from last September, a good hitter wants to draw a walk once every 10 at-bats (10 percent). He wants to have at least half the number of walks (50 percent) that he does strikeouts and also whiff no more than once every five plate appearances (20 percent).
Glance down the list of current young Mariners hitters and you can see the problem right away just in the strikeout rates alone.
Dustin Ackley: 21 percent (had some struggles the final few weeks)
Casper Wells: 36.2 percent
Mike Carp: 25.9 percent
Justin Smoak: 21.5 percent
Trayvon Robinson: 39.4 percent
Alex Liddi: 38.6 percent
Carlos Peguero: 34.8 percent
Michael Saunders: 31.3 percent
Kyle Seager was actually the best of the young bunch at 17.9 percent, which bodes well for him. Jesus Montero was at 24.6 percent in his limited Yankees stint and it’s worth noting he was up over 21 percent in Class AAA.
So, on this front, the Mariners have a ton of work ahead. You can live with pure power hitters striking out 150 times per year if they get on base a lot. But you cannot have the majority of the lineup doing it.
And with strikeout rates this high, your other “control ratio” numbers are automatically going to suffer unless you have some pretty high walk rates.
Let’s look at the walk rates for these young Mariners, which, remember, you want to keep above 10 percent.
Dustin Ackley: 10.6 percent
Casper Wells: 7.8 percent
Justin Smoak: 11.2 percent
Mike Carp: 6.1 percent
Trayvon Robinson: 5.2 percent
Alex Liddi: 6.8 percent
Carlos Peguero: 5.2 percent
Kyle Seager: 6.5 percent
Michael Saunders: 6.7 percent
Now, you can see a big part of the challenge ahead. Smoak and Ackley both have strong walk rates, so it brings them closer in line to that 1:2 ratio (50 percent) that you want between walks and strikeouts. Cutting down on just a bit of their whiffs should lead to everything normalizing across the board. Some better pitch selection and focus and their numbers could leap and bring them closer to where they’ll need to be when this team is ready to try for the post-season.
But for all the other guys? Not really close to being adequate. Even Seager — he of the low strikeout rate — is up to a near 1:2.5 walks-to-strikeouts ratio and that’s too low.
Robinson, Saunders and Liddi are almost certainly not going to make this team barring a dramatic transformation in spring training. Same for Peguero. In fact, all are unlikely to see much major league time at all unless they radically alter some of their plate discipline numbers in the minors, which, historically, have been about as bad as what they’ve shown in the majors. Saunders has had good AAA walk rates the past two years, but his strikeouts took a rise adjusting to a new batting approach. He’s been training with a hitting instructor (Josh Bard’s brother) all winter, so we’ll see whether M’s hitting coach Chris Chambliss (who has not been in contact with hitting instructor Bard) likes what he sees this spring. That alone could determine whether Saunders remains in the organization beyond 2012. Remember, he has a minor league option left.
As for those who will likely make the team, Wells, Carp and Seager are all going to have to show big improvement if they want to stick as part of a playoff squad in the future. Unless one of them becomes a 30-homer guy. But even if they do, you just can’t keep putting up control numbers this poor and expect to have a longstanding major league career as anything but a backup. Remember, Jose Lopez hit 25 homers in 2009 and is pretty much out of baseball now at a young age.
Montero was at a 10.1 percent walk rate in his limited MLB stint, but just 7.8 percent in AAA. So, even he could use some improvement in the plate discipline department.
If nothing else, keep an eye on these numbers this entire season. More so than wins and losses, it may dictate just how much further the M’s will have to go before they can start to field a more permanent lineup and aim for the playoffs.
For some of these guys to factor into the future, those numbers are going to have to adjust more to the levels of what good players expect. If they don’t, the Mariners will have to go out and find good hitters to replace them.

Comments | Topics: Jesus Montero


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