Treatment and Control of the Zone
Jay did a great job summarizing the M’s PR video on a new, org-wide emphasis on the strike zone, but I had a few additional thoughts I wanted to throw out there. Essentially, my reaction to this exceedingly well-presented organizational philosophy has three components. One: we have seen an org-wide philosophy implemented, with bells and whistles we all thought sounded revolutionary at the time, and things…did not improve. Second, the philosophy espoused does not exactly match up with many of the M’s recent acquisitions. So third, the optimistic view is that the process by which this philosophy is disseminated is at least as important – probably more – than the philosophy itself. This is a player development challenge, and as Dipoto said, development doesn’t stop once a player’s promoted to the bigs.
Back in early 2010, the Mariners hired a director of sports science and performance, a man named Dr. Marcus Elliott. Elliott had worked with elite athletes on three continents, as well as NFL and NBA teams, but the M’s were his first foray into baseball (as far as I know). Elliott told Geoff Baker that baseball was “monolithic” and resistant to change, and that his focus on “rotational mechanics” could help unlock power as well as flexibility to help avoid injury. This was an early spring puff piece about a change in training, but given the timing – right after the successful 2009 season, the M’s looking interesting – most of us were very excited. The club’s mantra at the time was that “talent wins” and they identified what they saw as a market inefficiency in turning “talent” into runs and wins on the baseball field. The story made sense, and I’m not trying to slam Dr. Elliott at all – there are still articles written about his work in the NBA, and the M’s actually HAVE suffered fewer injuries than other teams in recent years. But let’s just say that big league results from this or any other facet of the organizational focus on talent and the unlocking of talent are lacking.
Were expectations perhaps a bit high? Yeah, definitely. In less sober moments, I imagined busloads of M’s minor leaguers venturing throughout the midwest, striking fear into their opponents by hitting home runs one-handed, or rotating their necks like owls. But almost immediately, the M’s overall talent level seemed to start slipping behind their competitors. The Tacoma Rainiers won the PCL in 2010, and have been around .500 since. That’s better than what’s happened lower down, where teams like Clinton and High Desert/Bakersfield have struggled mightily while the Astros affiliates dominate virtually every league they participate in. Some teams are able to generate system-wide improvements in performance, but the M’s haven’t been one of them.
But who’s to blame for that? JY’s absolutely right that there must have been some sort of disconnect in the previous regime, and I think it was clearest in regard to power hitters. The team quickly acquired the likes of Johermyn Chavez and Mike Carp, and worked hard to develop guys like Carlos Peguero, Greg Halman, Matt Mangini, Alex Liddi, etc. In recent years, they went overslot to grab guys like Austin Wilson and Gareth Morgan in the hopes that one day they wouldn’t need to continually shop for Mike Morse/Corey Hart/Jack Cust. Scouts fed the machine lots of powerful raw material, but virtually none of that raw material made an impact in the big leagues. Statistically, that could be slightly bad luck, or it could be that there was a gap between what the development staff was tasked with and what they were *good at*. It’s not like the group had NO notable successes in the past several years (covering two different directors), but their results were bad in precisely the area that the front office seemed to prize. At the very least, it’s clear now what everyone is supposed to prioritize, and you figure the M’s will be better about ensuring new coaches have some experience in and aptitude for teaching the strike zone.
So: if the strike zone is everything, why did the M’s trade for Wade Miley (below average BB%) and Nate Karns (below average BB%) and pick up Justin De Fratus (below average BB%), Cody Martin (yep)? They traded for Steve Clevenger, whose walk rate just plummeted, too. To be sure, they added plenty of guys with very *good* plate discipline numbers, from Evan Scribner to Adam Lind to Boog Powell, but you don’t see the kind of monomania described in the video in the M’s transaction logs. Not a bad thing, perhaps, but an odd one. If the M’s are to become a team that really controls the zone, not only is the player development team going to have to do some work, but the big league coaching staff needs to help the likes of Miley and Karns improve.
This is why I mentally underlined the same quote in the video as JY – the idea that development *must* continue at the big league level. The big, if tacit, idea in the video is not that the strike zone is important, it’s that it is teachable. That goes against some traditional baseball wisdom, or at least the experience of many fans, that says that you can make a low-walk player into a better version of a low-walk player, but you’re probably not going to make them into Kevin Youkilis. Part of the utility of a common vocabulary and emphasis throughout the org is that additional work could actually happen in the majors, though obviously it’s going to take more than a list of terms to ensure that this is successful.
And that’s why Andy McKay’s role is so critical. He’s the one ultimately in charge of making this happen, perhaps more so than the people actually acquiring baseball players. Soon we’ll see if it becomes a point of emphasis for the amateur scouting department, but it’s evidently not the *sole* focus of pro scouts. The M’s – and every other team – have organizational philosophies, and other teams like consistent messaging. But teams vary widely in putting those things into practice. If you’re cynical, you’d note that the Angels’ minor league system wasn’t much better than the M’s in terms of BB%, K-BB%, or, you know, wins and losses. Optimists might retort that the entire reason for Dipoto’s departure from Anaheim was that he was not capable of or allowed to implement his vision organization-wide,* and that getting everyone on the same page might help. Ultimately, the M’s are banking on the idea that proper coaching can transform plate discipline for pitchers as well as hitters, and that it can do so relatively quickly. It’ll be interesting to see if they’re right.
As lofty a goal as it is, I don’t think it’s impossible. The Astros’ led the classification (not just the league!) in run differential at A ball, high-A, AA, AAA** and they led baseball in minor league winning percentage as a result. How? Well, they led baseball in system-wide BB% for hitters, as well as walk-strikeout ratio, HRs, and runs. Sure, they had a great system, headlined by Carlos Correa, but these sorts of uberprospects are few and far between and often (like Correa) extremely young for their league. To get *system-wide* results like these, you need a heck of a lot more than solid years from your top 5 prospects. To get results like these up and down the ladder, and with a shifting mix of players thanks to trades and promotions, you need to be doing something different. We’ll see if it continues, but 2015 in the Astros system seems like a demonstration of how successful player development can be.
* This is somewhat undercut by the fact that the farm system coordinator was trusted ally Scott Servais. Dipoto couldn’t get through to his big league manager, but he and Servais were clearly on the same page. Maybe the difficulty in connecting with managers afflicted the farm system too, or maybe they didn’t quite have the right people in place to carry off something like what they’re attempting in Seattle.
** I can’t overstate how incredible that is. Everything about amateur player acquisition is geared at fighting this – the existence of a draft, the bonus pools, restrictions on international signings, all of it. It’d be one thing if the Astros just loaded each level of older MiLB free agents, but no, the Astros’ affiliates were *younger*, on average, than their competitors. Yes, yes, years of awful results gave them some high draft picks, but Carlos Correa was 20, and played in all of 53 minor league games.