By Jux Berg
Justin “Jux” Berg, an Ohio transplant, resides in Bellingham and lives for baseball, both past and present. He has been a fan of the Mariners since the day Ken Griffey Jr. was drafted.
The Mariners’ front office has misidentified the specific needs of its fledgling offense, failing to grasp which categories matter for a team playing in a pitcher friendly ballpark. Meanwhile, a little more than 800 miles down the coast, the San Francisco Giants have provided the blueprint for Seattle to follow.
According to stat master Bill James, the two most pitcher friendly parks since 2010 are Safeco Field in Seattle and AT&T Park in San Francisco. The Mariners have scored the fewest runs in baseball since 2010. San Francisco has scored well over 300 more runs than Seattle in that span. Stack both lineups next to each other and you won’t see much of a difference in potency from top to bottom. Besides 2012 National League MVP Buster Posey and possibly third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who in the Giant lineup would a general manager seriously consider trading for?
Both organizations face the same offensive constraints in their home stadiums. One has figured out what to do about it, the other hasn’t.
Alarmed by the low number of home runs the past few seasons, Mariners officials decided to move the fences in at Safeco this winter while acquiring four veteran sluggers: Michael Morse, Raul Ibanez, Kendrys Morales and Jason Bay. The result has been a top-10 ranking in home runs this season —up from 19th in 2012. Despite the uptick in long balls, the stat that determines wins and losses — runs scored — still ranks in the bottom five in all of baseball.
Meanwhile, the Giants ranked dead last in home runs a season ago as they small-balled their way to the World Series.
Maybe more power is the answer, but not in the form of home runs. What about doubles? Doubles are a major part of run manufacturing. Not only will a two-base hit normally drive in whomever is on base, but the batter also ends up in scoring position. Seattle ranked fourth from the bottom in doubles last season and is in the bottom 10 in ’13, while San Francisco ranks in the top 10.
A timeless baseball adage: “If you put the ball in play, good things can happen.” Even if the ball is hit directly at a defender, the team can still:
1) Advance a runner into scoring position or move that runner over to third.
2) Score a run.
3) Reach by error (extra out).
Seattle ranked 21st in fewest strikeouts in 2012, and ranks third from last so far this season. Meantime, the Giants rank in the top 5 in both 2012 and ’13.
Strikeouts often are the result of two issues:
1) Lack of consistent approach.
2) Swinging for the fences on every swing (aka Miguel Olivo disease)
An effective hitter looks for his pitch. He’s ready to pounce when it comes, but if it doesn’t, he won’t chase. With two strikes, he’ll shorten his swing and engage in the art of fouling off pitcher’s pitches and focus on ultimately hitting the ball hard. Teams with high strikeout numbers tend to have a lineup full of hitters swinging from their heels.
Most general managers would take both the 2010 Texas and 2012 Detroit lineups over San Francisco’s, yet the Giants won eight of nine games in those World Series. Giants hitters have an approach. It was on full display in those Fall Classics, as they consistently battled and waited out Cliff Lee, Justin Verlander and other top level starting pitchers, extending at-bats and innings, elevating pitch counts and forcing those hurlers to throw it in the zone.
It’s a Small-Ball World
Stolen bases have become nearly extinct in the past couple of decades. In 2012, the average major-league team stole 108 bases. In 1987, when speed was a hot commodity, Vince Coleman of St. Louis swiped 109 by himself. With more emphasis on power nowadays, many teams approach scoring runs by getting a couple of base runners on and waiting for someone to club a three-run homer.
But that won’t work in pitcher-friendly parks, as the Giants have realized. San Francisco ranked 10th in MLB last season in stolen bases on their way to the World Series title. Seattle ranked near the middle in ’12 and currently sits third from last this season.
Putting pressure on the opposing pitcher and defense is an advantage that can’t be overlooked. The website Baseball Prospectus compiles a team baserunning stat that takes into account everything from stolen bases to scoring from third on a ground ball to taking an extra base on a single. In 2012, San Francisco ranked 10th while Seattle pulled in at 26th. The M’s crack the top 20 so far this season, which is encouraging, but another 10 spots or so will be necessary moving forward.
Follow the Leader
The front office in San Francisco identified the type of hitters necessary to score runs in a pitcher-friendly ballpark and focused on acquiring a roster full of players that fit the mold.
The Mariners front office, on the other hand, has focused on the wrong statistic. Guys like Morse, Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak appear appealing because of their power potential, but at Safeco Field, that potential becomes null and void. Bringing more home-run hitters to Seattle is like continuing to slam on the gas pedal when your tires are stuck in the snow. It’s not the answer. Try kitty litter (speed) or sand (low-strikeout guys) or maybe slide the floor mats in front of the tires (better base runners) or try letting some air out of the tires (doubles). In other words, follow the blueprint of the team in your situation that has figured out a way to win two of the past three World Series.
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