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Take 2

A different spin on sports by The Seattle Times staff and readers.

June 18, 2013 at 12:00 PM

Here’s the key to fixing the Mariners’ offense

By Jux Berg

Seattle Times freelance writer Justin “Jux” Berg has lived in Bellingham for seven years. The Ohio transplant lives for baseball, both past and present, and has been a fan of the Mariners since the day Ken Griffey Jr. was drafted.

If you’ve watched a Seattle Mariners game in the past five years, you have shaken your head in confusion more than a few times following an at-bat. Regardless of which statistics you consider, the M’s are the consensus worst offensive team of the 2010’s.

“Yes, Jux,” you’re saying, “tell me something I don’t know.”

To that, I say: Let’s figure out what the problems have been, and then come up with solutions.

When I began research for this article, I wanted to know:

1)       Why specifically have Seattle hitters struggled these past few years?

2)       What adjustments can be made to turn things around in 2013?

3)       What must the organizational focus be moving forward?

Based on the piece I wrote last month, Mariners’ Front Office Needs to Follow Giants’ Blueprint to Success, we already know the M’s have been deficient in four key areas: Too many strikeouts, too few doubles and stolen bases, and poor baserunning.

But I wanted go deeper. These guys are major-league hitters. What are they doing wrong at the plate?

First thing: What is the basic object of hitting? In other words, what should the goal of every hitter be?

Get on base as much as possible. And how do you do that? Hit the ball hard as many times as possible while not striking out very often.

We know the Mariners have had difficulties with that. Let’s find out what the issues have been.

Breaking down Mariners’ hitting approach

Of 30 Major League Baseball teams, the Mariners rank 24th in on-base percentage, 27th in batting average, fourth in most strikeouts, 23rd in doubles and 29th in triples. Obviously, that tells us they aren’t putting the ball in play enough and when they do, they aren’t hitting it hard very often. But why?

Using Fangraphs and Pitch F/X, I broke down where Seattle ranks in several areas of the category known as “Plate Discipline.” Have a look at these numbers:

  • Contact percentage (how often they hit the pitches they swing at): 27th
  • Zone swing percentage (percentage of strikes they swing at): 30th
  • Outside zone swing percentage (percentage of balls they swing at): 7th
  • Swing percentage (percentage of pitches they swing at overall): 26th
  • Swing and miss percentage (percentage of total pitches seen that batters swing and miss on): 24th

These figures tell us a few things:

1)       The Mariners do not swing very often.

2)       The Mariners take a ton of called strikes.

3)       When the Mariners do swing, they whiff a lot.

Add those three factors up and you get a historically anemic offense.

What adjustments can be made in 2013?

Obviously, general manager Jack Zduriencik can’t trade away all of the poor-performing hitters he’s compiled for better hitters. So to turn things around as we head toward the All-Star break, it falls on the current coaching staff and hitters to improve the team’s collective approach at the plate.

We know the hitters aren’t swinging very often. That’s not entirely a bad thing: The M’s rank 10th in walk percentage. Walks work. As long as it’s not an out — more specifically a strikeout — we’ll take it. That said, hitters are letting too many strikes go by without taking a whack. That needs to be corrected.

But how?

Based on the wisdom of all-time greats like Ted Williams and current All-Stars like Joey Votto (and a friend of mine named Andy who dominates the adult men’s league up here in Bellingham), there is a distinct common denominator for hitting success.

The three simple components to a good hitting approach:

1)       Determine which pitch is “your pitch.” What is your favorite strike to hit? Meaning, where in the zone do you like the ball to be? What pitch do you feel most comfortable hitting?

2)       Be ready for ‘your pitch’ on every pitch — especially the first pitch of the at-bat (every pitcher loves to get ahead in the count). Take control of the at-bat. How do you do that? You hit your pitch, not his. If it’s not where you like it, lay off everything until you get two strikes. (The exceptions would be if you need to hit a ground ball to the right side to advance a runner from second to third, or if you’re trying to hit a sacrifice fly.)

3)       When the count goes to two strikes, choke up on the bat, widen your stance, and use a shorter, quicker swing. React. Be ready to swing at anything close, but let the ball travel — don’t be afraid to be late and foul pitches off. Keep battling until you draw the walk or get a pitch you can hit hard somewhere.

You can clearly tell when a hitter doesn’t have the correct approach. Here’s how the at-bat will go: Fastball right down the middle, belt high — the batter takes it for strike one. Slider, low and away, the batter swings and misses. The count is 0-2 in the blink of an eye. Now the pitcher holds all the cards. A few pitches later, the batter swings and misses, gets jammed or hits something weakly off the end of the bat.

If the hitter had been ready to pounce on that first fastball — that juicy first fastball — he could have ripped it somewhere. Instead, he fell behind in the count and then got nothing good to hit the rest of the at-bat.

Stats to consider:

2013 Mariners First pitch Down 0-1 Down 0-2 Two strikes Pitcher ahead in count Batter ahead in count
Batting Avg .333 .202 .162 .168 .187 .276
On-Base Pct .337 .244 .161 .231 .192 .455

The final piece to address is the propensity for Seattle to “swing for the fences.” The Mariners rank seventh in the majors in fly-ball percentage and 20th in line-drive percentage. Playing at Safeco Field, hitting more fly balls than line drives will decimate your ability to score runs.

San Francisco won the World Series in 2012 while hitting the least amount of home runs in all of baseball.

Why? They were in the top five in fewest strikeouts and were second in MLB in line-drive percentage.

The 2013 Cardinals (best record in baseball) are near the bottom in home runs, but they are in the top five in runs scored and lead all of baseball in batting average with runners in scoring position. Why? A team-wide approach of sacrificing swinging for the fences in order to make solid contact more often. The Cards rank 28th in fly-ball percentage and hold the top spot in line-drive percentage.

So, for the rest of this season, in order for the Mariner offense to start scoring more runs, a team-wide focus on squaring up as many balls as possible — while forgetting about home runs altogether — and putting the ball in play with two strikes will need to be the plan of attack. It needs to be considered blasphemy to strike out. It won’t be easy to make the transition, but with the current configuration of hitters on this Seattle ballclub, it’s the only way more runs will be scored.

 New organizational focus

The facets of this hitting approach must become mantras throughout the Mariner organization — from the major-league level all the way down to rookie ball. There’s no other way. Safeco Field is not a place you can power your way to runs — even with shorter fences. Accept that. Use it to your advantage.

If you compile a lineup full of hitters with the correct approach for your type of ballpark, and sprinkle in some speed, you’ll have a decided home-field advantage against teams whose lineups are built for more homer-friendly stadiums.

From scouting to drafting to player development, you can’t waver. It must be all about taking control of at-bats, hitting the pitches you want to hit, using the whole field and hitting more line drives (which will increase doubles and triples) and, most important, employing a sound, protective two-strike approach.

Safeco Field has swallowed up many power hitters (Adrian Beltre, Justin Smoak, etc) and unless global warming speeds way up, that dense, cool maritime atmosphere will continue to scare away free-agent home-run hitters for years to come. That’s the reality. But it doesn’t have to be a problem. Train the hitters in your organization correctly. Bring in free agents and trade for hitters who fit the mold. The Giants have already proven it can be done.

With the correct shift in focus, the Mariners’ offense can get things turned around. And then we can finally see what Felix Hernandez can do in the postseason.

Want to be a reader contributor to The Seattle Times’ Take 2 blog? Email your original, previously unpublished work or proposal to Sports Editor Don Shelton at dshelton@seattletimes.com or sports@seattletimes.com. Not all submissions can be published. The Times reserves the right to edit and publish any submissions online and/or in print.

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