Treatment and Control of the Zone

marc w · December 30, 2015 at 6:15 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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.


12 Responses to “Treatment and Control of the Zone”

  1. Rengaw on December 30th, 2015 8:49 pm

    To put this new Mariner philosophy in Casey Stengelese……..

    “You pitchers, who been walking too many guys, just get the ball over the plate ‘cus we got outfielders now to shag them balls down.”

    “You hitters, not you Cruz, quit trying to smack the ball off the wall. Just get to first no matter what.”

  2. ck on December 30th, 2015 9:36 pm

    I hope it all happens soon. I have been rooting for a Series appearance for more than 24 years. Identifying, and then, implementing a training program that will help the majority of the teams (every level) to some degree of improvement in measurable performance in areas such as BA, OBP, BB% etc, should result in more Wins. Combined with better catching, throwing, running, and other salient baseball activities i.e, spittin’ and scratchin,’ will transform the entire Org.

    The Big Unit, and Junior, are ‘natural’ HOF MLB’ers, while Moyer and Edgar earned their level of MLB success through physical and mental preparation, driven by their desire. Very few Trout-like naturals exist, but if the M’s Scouts / Front Office can accurately determine which potential prospects have the will to learn, and thereby succeed, the new Org. philosophy might actually work (eventually)
    Go M’s.

  3. Longgeorge1 on December 31st, 2015 9:12 am

    So how does this model fit with a team like the Royals? Offensively I don’t think they have a BB% or a K% because they don’t do either. From a pitching standpoint it is “there is no substitute for cubic inches” especially in the pen. Then if all else fails “run and catch”.

  4. Notfromboise on December 31st, 2015 1:12 pm

    Well to be fair that pen with Davis, Herrera, Holland and Hochevar… it shortens the game a couple innings. Just like the Rivera-Yankees, if they have the lead in the 7th, game is over.

    Comparing us to KC is mixed signals all over. Yeah, they hit .269, 20 points higher than the mariners. But their OBP was only 11 pts higher than us, and we both had similar SLGs…

    Which leads back to the fact that in terms of overall OPS, the reason they were 34 points better (net) had a lot more to do with that bullpen than the type of OBP-driven culture the Ms are trying to instill.

    The one thing that really stood out to me perusing the 2015 Royals was that (discounting Guthrie and how goofy Cuerto was during the second half after coming over from the Reds) their starting pitching was a lot more sound than I remember. Regardless, their run prevention seemed to be a bigger factor in their success than their ability to get on base and score runs.

  5. The Ancient Mariner on December 31st, 2015 2:47 pm

    Couple other thoughts to your couple thoughts . . .

    1) I wouldn’t lay too much weight on Miley, Karns, Clevenger, etc. I agree that the new regime appears to be acting out of the belief that they can teach this stuff, but there’s also the practical reality that DiPoto was getting who he could get without dealing more than spare parts (mostly; I’m irked about Kivlehan, too), not his platonic-ideal ballplayer.

    2) I have no way of knowing, but it seems plausible to me that Scioscia was undermining Servais the same way he was undermining DiPoto. The man clearly knows how to play organizational politics, and one of the first rules there is to take out your enemy’s chief allies.

    3) I think the most important thing about this video is that the new regime is intentionally handing the media and fanbase the grading sheet. They’ve told us, “This is what we’re going to be doing and this is why it’s critically important,” and in so doing, they’ve told us exactly how to tell if they’re succeeding or failing. That should earn them some slack if good process is undercut by bad luck, but it means that if they don’t stick to this and if they don’t make it work, they have nowhere to hide. I admire that.

  6. Jay Yencich on December 31st, 2015 5:47 pm

    Nice follow-up there, Marc. Hadn’t really considered it in terms of some of this but people seem to be picking up on the different bits of context.

    I’m not sure how much weight I put on the Marcus Elliott stuff just because it happened fairly on in Zduriencik’s tenure and it wasn’t too long after that Blengino and others were in the doghouse. Whose move or idea it was, I can’t really say, but given that the contract expired without so much as a mention anywhere about its successes, failures, or the prospect of it becoming non-exclusive throughout baseball… I don’t know… The whole previous front office felt so factionalized that I don’t know how much was really acted upon and how much was just going through the motions.

    As for the non-ideal K/BB acquisitions, I would guess that a good part of this offseason was about getting assets and trying to maximize some of the return available for what the contracts were. I don’t put too much stock in the Martin/de Frautus type signings because they’re really 23-25th man type ones, but the ones that have filled out the rotation have at least been all right. There’s depth now, where there wasn’t previously. The question will be now, while we have the good faith that Edgar will be able to implement a more OBP-centric vision, who will be the one we’ll point to get the most out of what have heretofore been underperforming pitchers, either due to consistency or other factors?

  7. LongDistance on January 1st, 2016 1:15 pm

    C the Z is less about tweaking statistical performance one way or the other, than creating a protective set position for mental performance.

    That’s all I see them doing at this point. Trying to proactively create an actual team, rather than just filling holes, tacking on some veteran clubhouse wisdom a la WFB (….), and hoping something will gel.

    Get a foundation for mental performance. Something they were mysteriously never able to accomplish with either Ackley or Zunino.

    I’m not saying the organization was dumping pure dingers psychosis on those two. Which would turn, for example, the batters box from being a guy’s (granted: difficult) workplace, into a nightmare war zone. But it’s been a long time since I’ve heard a GM or anyone else talk about the development of a team-wide mental approach.

    I love January, how it just oozes optimism. But I do, indeed, believe we’re witnessing a true sea change.

  8. MrZDevotee on January 1st, 2016 2:34 pm

    My wife, aside from being a fabulous M’s fan, has a Ph.D in organizational development and a master’s degree is Systems Theory… So I’m around this stuff all the time and it is truly a positive step towards a massive shift in development. What this does is lay a foundation so that EVERY SINGLE person from rookie ball to the major league team can make decisions with something to weigh it against. A guiding principle is the very first step in “resetting” an organization at the fundamental level, when it has been failing previously… Otherwise, you’re leaning towards the “grasping at straws” approach.

    The flipside is what we saw with Z’s reign, which is the characteristic of flawed systems, and the opposite side of the coin. When there is a FLAW in a system, it can usually be traced all the way to the top of leadership, and to its fundamental philosophy (or lack thereof)… And we definitely saw this in effect, in development, when players were going OUTSIDE the organization to fix their swings, because our own professional development staff didn’t have answers for them. In hindsight that was a bizarre circumstance. I remember Saunders, and Ackley, and somebody else, hiring outside hitting coaches to try to fix their swings– which is an epic fail organizationally. What successful organization would even ALLOW that to happen?

    So yeah, I’m excited to see if this “founding philosophy” can have a positive effect, and if everyone in the coaching/management departments is willing to buy in and work towards change.

    I think it’s much more than simply a soundbite. From player development to being able to make quick decisions at the ownership level, guiding principles work. And organizations that implement them effectively usually find the path to success much less cluttered.

    Of course, you still have to WIN, which is the goal… But removing obstacles from finding success can be a big boost towards having the talent to succeed.

  9. LongDistance on January 2nd, 2016 10:31 am

    MrZ … Z’s now for Zone.

    It’s like … yunno … fate or something?

  10. MrZDevotee on January 2nd, 2016 4:41 pm

    I like it… “Mastering the Zone” Devotee…

  11. Westside guy on January 2nd, 2016 11:22 pm

    Nice retcon work there!

  12. LongDistance on January 4th, 2016 10:37 pm

    “Retcon”. Excellent.

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