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May 15, 2012 at 7:10 PM

Mariners looking for hope in some harder-hit balls, but still need to finish a lot better than they have

When you’re going as woefully as the Mariners have on offense for most of this trip and for a good part of the season, you start to look for signs of hope. A handful of them saw some things today that they hope will lead to better things.
For now, it’s just another four-hit day. One run scored in two games at Fenway Park.
The Mariners track a bunch of stuff during games and one of them is the number of “hard hit” balls. Mariners manager Eric Wedge counted nine or 10 of them today and hopes that they lead to something.
“Anytime we did have a good opportunity, we just didn’t find a hole,” he said. “We still had some poor ABs from a few guys and we’ve got to do a better job of that. I think we have four or five guys heading in the right direction. What we need to do is get the other four or five heading in the right direction with them.”
And that’s been the problem. As I mentioned today on my Talkin’ Baseball segment on Sports Radio 950 KJR, the Mariners have had some positive individual signs from hitters so far. This looks like an offense with better individual pieces than we saw in 2010 and 2011 and I alluded to it just last week when discussing the offense.
But overall, there is just too much sputtering. Too little ability to string together hits and keep rallies going.
You can hit balls hard, yes, and they may even add up to nine or 10 over nine innings. But not every hard hit ball in a game is going to fall in. They just never do. And even if six or seven fall in for hits, you’re going to need more than that over nine innings if you want to score more than a couple of runs without some big homer involved.
Justin Smoak nearly went deep in today’s second inning. Had his ball been ruled fair, I think it’s possible it might have changed the momentum in the game, maybe led to Josh Beckett getting rattled a bit. Who knows?
“From my view, right down the line, it went right over the pole,” Smoak said.
Close, but no cigar. And after that, the Mariners really didn’t do anything until the fourth inning when they were already down 1-0. They whiffed six times the first two frames and nine times by the fifth. In fact, the first five innings, their only hits were an infield single by Dustin Ackley and a flair by Ichiro that dropped in front of the center fielder.
Yeah, there were a few hard-hit balls, but it wasn’t exactly a firestorm of them.
Things changed later on in the game.

Later on, the Mariners began putting better wood on things and yes, some balls were hit deep. Trouble is, they were down 4-0 by that point.
And that’s part of the consistency problem. What Wedge was talking about, with some guys sputtering while others are figuring it out.
That and the lineup isn’t exactly shaped the way it should be. Wedge agreed with me pregame that Smoak’s inability to stick in the middle of the order has hampered some of what the manager would like to do. For instance, if you move Smoak’s switch-hitting bat to the middle of the order, you can eliminate some of the string of lefty-bat problems that Wedge is trying to avoid.
You can also move the right-handed bat of Jesus Montero someplace else if you want. It creates more options for you from the right side. But with Smoak struggling, he’s not in the middle of the order any more and Wedge won’t put him back there until he shows this five-game stretch of hitting can last longer.
Smoak came in 8-for-16 on the trip and hit three balls pretty hard today with nothing to show for it.
“We feel like we hit some balls hard and that’s part of the game,” Smoak said. “We can’t always hit them where they’re not.”
That’s true. They can’t.
And frankly, the Mariners aren’t hitting enough overall to win games when the harder-hit balls fail to fall in.
There are still too many hitters in this lineup who look hesitant when going after hittable pitches. The Mariners aren’t punishing pitchers for mistakes and — as a consequence — those pitchers keep attacking the strike zone.
We’ll see whether some of these harder hit balls lead to something. Wedge has seen good things from Smoak and they are starting to pay off in games. He’s also seeing good things from Brendan Ryan that are not translating to much when it matters.
So, we’ll see how the balance goes and which side the majority of hitters wind up falling on.
Once some of those problems work themselves out, Wedge can then possibly address some of the obvious lineup issues that are hurting the team. Ichiro is back up to a .296 batting average and that’s a welcome sign. But, as we all know, average is not the best way to measure a hitter. His on-base percentage of .337 is pretty ho-hum for a middle-of-the-order type as is a sub-.400 slugging percentage. In a perfect world, with a good offense, you need a guy who can come up with more extra-base hits and preferably in key situations with runners on base.
Ichiro has had good numbers with runners in scoring position throughout his career, but not this season at .206. And now, at age 38, it doesn’t matter so much what he did at age 35. Or even age 37.
The reason Ichiro was bounced out of the leadoff job was because he wasn’t hitting like he used to. He’s hitting for average now, but it’s mostly for singles. And while that does not make him a liability on this team, the singles-hitting approach and the struggles so far with runners in scoring position mean a change might be needed.
Not to be bounced off the team, of course. Not when he’s batting almost .300. But where he’s better suited. If he had the power upside of a Jose Bautista, you’d leave him in there based on track record. But if it’s extra-base hits and some homers sprinkled in with the doubles that you’re looking for, well, sorry, but right now Ichiro is what he’s been for some time.
A guy hitting mostly singles.
And even if he ups the RISP stuff to what he used to do, it still might not be enough.
So, this is certainly worth watching. Because like I’ve mentioned in prevous posts, when a team is trying to win games in-season, a manager, GM and others don’t always have the luxury of waiting an entire season for a bigger “sample size” to see whether the numbers pan out over time. Sometimes, especially with 38-year-olds, they don’t go back to what they used to be. As we learned with Ken Griffey Jr.
So, if the Mariners want a singles-hitting, batting average guy in the No. 3 spot whose RISP numbers are down, so far, Ichiro’s their man. If not, they should consider a change, which is what they’re thinking about right now. They aren’t doing it yet because they want to see whether he can be just a little more. If not, they’ll make a change.
This team needs run production and they’re not getting it the way this lineup is constructed. They fixed part of the issue up top by punting Chone Figgins for Dustin Ackley. Once Smoak consistently hits like a middle-order guy again, they can think about potential changes in that part of the order.
Because when you aren’t scoring, fixing the problem usually starts up top and in the middle. And with this team back to scoring two runs per game on this trip, the M’s know they don’t have all year. They need players to produce and then, they need to get them in the right spots. Ichiro keeps on hitting, Ackley keeps getting on up top and the team still can’t score.
Today, they had some hard-hit balls. Still not enough.

Comments | Topics: Brendan Ryan, Chone Figgins, Jesus Montero


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