Last week at Fenway Park, I was asked if I’d participate in a podcast for the FanGraphs website and after agreeing to, was asked on-air by writer David Laurila about why the Mariners don’t draw many walks. I had no idea what questions were going to be asked, so my quick response was to mention that the team as a whole had to stop chasing pitches out of the strike zone and also learn to better punish pitchers once they came inside the zone.
I was going off memories of watching Chone Figgins, Brendan Ryan, Miguel Olivo and others take some wild swings earlier on. Also, the inability of the Mariners to punish pitchers is a topic we’ve discussed for two years on this blog. In my conversations with personnel from other teams, the one thing they’ve mentioned is that there was no one player any pitcher really feared in the Mariners lineup. Nobody who could consistently change the outcome of a game with one swing. Therefore, opposing pitchers have been taking liberties with the Mariners, coming at them aggressively with little fear of any reprecussions since the start of 2010.
That was my take on it, anyway, but I figured I’d look into it further.
After all, manager Eric Wedge has been working for over a year now to change the approach of M’s hitters so that they attack first and do damage with hittable pitches. But Wedge has also preached to them that they should lay off the unhittable stuff and take walks if they absolutely don’t get anything hittable.
The day after I did the FanGraphs podcast, I happened across this post written that day on the excellent Seattle Sports Insider website. Naturally, having just talked about the subject on the podcast, I was interested to see the author suggest that opposing pitchers had thrown more pitches inside the strike zone to the Mariners (as of a week ago) than to any other team.
Not only that, but he also notes that an abnormally high number of strikes are coming on 1-0, 2-0 and 2-1 “hitter’s counts” which seems to suggest that — rather than risk a walk — the pitchers are simply shrugging, throwing the ball right down the middle without fear and all but daring the Mariners to swing and do something to the pitch.
Sure enough, in the game that day, a struggling Josh Beckett went out and threw 60 strikes among his 93 pitches, practically daring the Mariners to do something.
The Mariners did nothing and were shut out for seven innings by Beckett and 5-0 overall.
After the game, ESPNBoston columnist Gordon Edes and I walked out of Fenway Park together. Edes had rushed over to remind me of an interesting tidbit. That Beckett had allowed a league-high 19 extra-base hits in his first six outings of the season, but yielded only four singles to the Mariners.
I mean, a guy with a near 6.00 ERA, who was getting crushed for home runs and doubles all season to that point had just thrown two thirds of his pitches inside the strike zone and the M’s did nothing with them.
Now, here’s the good news.
Photo Credit: AP
One of the other things the Seattle Sports Insider post mentioned was that the Mariners were doing very well at what’s called O-swing percentage, which measures swings taken at pitches outside the strike zone.
Despite the bad swings I’ve seen taken this season at times, the reality overall seemed to tell a different story. So, I looked into their plate discipline further and sure enough, was surprised to see the Mariners are actually laying off of pitches outside of the strike zone relative to the rest of baseball. As of yesterday, they had the fifth-best mark (27.9 percent) of the 30 MLB teams at not swinging at stuff outside the zone.
Last year, the Mariners were at 30.6 percent and the fifth worst team in baseball at that plate discipline trait.
So, that’s great news. It would seem to suggest the Mariners are halfway to where they need to be. They aren’t hacking as much as they used to and are now better at laying off the stuff they can’t hit.
Now, the second part. They have to start punishing pitchers who do come into the strike zone with impunity.
As we mentioned in a post at the start of the team’s 4-6 road trip, the Mariners are hitting slightly better than last season. Instead of being dead last in home runs, they are now a middle-of-the-pack team in that department.
So, they have some pop in the lineup. Some guys opposing pitchers should, in theory, start to fear if they can keep it up.
Let’s face it, very few pitchers are going to seriously alter their approach because some guy might line a single off him. Even with a couple of runners on, many times that single scores only one run. But a three-run homer? Or a two-run double? That starts to get your attention as a pitcher.
And the Mariners are simply not there yet. As of yesterday, they were 21st of 30 teams in runs scored per game at 3.86 — up from a dead last 3.43 last year. So, that’s good. But they still arent getting shown much respect. They still have guys like Beckett — hit hard all year to that point — throwing the ball over the plate with impunity and not getting punished for it.
Reputations are sometimes tough to shake, as the Seattle Sports Insider post suggests. There might also be something to the fact the M’s have faced some really good pitching to this point, but then…look, we’ve all discussed how this team can make below average journeymen look like Cy Young.
And the word has been out on the Mariners for some time. You don’t produce two of the worst-rated offenses of all-time back-to-back in 2010 and 2011 without getting noticed. Pitchers can read scouting reports and their coaches drill it into them: don’t let the Mariners beat you via the walk. Throw the ball over the plate and most of the time, the worst you’ll suffer for it is a single or two.
Given all that, it’s going to be tough for the Mariners to draw walks, even though they are demonstrating more plate discipline.
Now, if they go up against Yu Darvish tonight and punish him and the Rangers the way they just spanked the Colorado Rockies, that will lift some eyebrows. The M’s have had their moments of making good pitchers pay this year– Derek Lowe and Justin Masterson come to mind.
But they’ll have to become more consistent at it in order for pitchers to stop throwing them stuff inside the zone. They’ll have to hit back-to-back homers like Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak did yesterday. Have to see Mike Carp go deep more often. The Mariners have to make pitchers afraid of coming inside the zone. Only then will the scouting reports change.
So, despite a very low team on-base percentage, the Mariners actually are showing better plate discipline. Now, they have to build on it. Only then will pitchers start nibbling and deliberately missing the strike zone more. And only then will Seattle’s walk totals start to climb in addition to the hits. Only then will this become a more complete, rounded offense.
For now, they’re stuck with their reputation as a popgun lineup. And it’s going to take time to change perceptions. More weekends like the one just completed, while facing better teams as well.