The M’s Approach to Hitting Is Changing

marc w · January 21, 2019 at 9:30 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

In 2015, the M’s hired Jerry Dipoto and entrusted him with the task of remaking a disappointing team that finished 4th in the AL West. They did so despite hitting a bunch of home runs, posting the 5th-highest ISO in the AL, and the 3rd-highest strikeout rate. They worked around those Ks thanks to hitting the ball hard, but they gave away much of that production in sub-par defense and awful baserunning. This was Dipoto’s first impression of the team he’d be taking over, and it led to an abrupt change in philosophy, one that reached its apotheosis in 2018. The Mariners K rate has declined in every year of Dipoto’s tenure as GM despite an increase in the league-wide K rate, and the Mariners’ ISO has dropped to 11th in 2018, with a raw rate lower than in 2015 despite an increase in league-wide ISO. The M’s worked very hard to zig where the league zagged in the philosophy of hitting.

Jerry Dipoto stated his desire to craft a 1970s-style offense last year, putting far more balls in play than their opponents, and putting pressure on pitchers with lots of runners on base. In many ways, this worked; the M’s put more balls in play thanks to very low K *and* BB rates, and an aforementioned lack of extra-base hitting and HRs. If Mark Trumbo playing RF typified the 2015 M’s, last year’s team featured a line-up with Dee Gordon and Jean Segura hitting 1-2. Segura’s K rate was 4th-lowest of all qualified hitters, while Gordon was 19th-lowest. While the rest of the line-up wasn’t quite so contact-focused, many of the players Dipoto targeted struck out less than league average, including Ryon Healy and Ben Gamel, who played positions where most teams tolerate some swing-and-miss in exchange for power. The team got plenty of base hits out of all those balls in play, but…well, you know. Despite racking up more base knocks than Houston, and just five less than Oakland, they were outscored by 120 runs and 136 runs by their divisional rivals. They had a plan, they executed their plan, and the plan did not work.

So there’s a new plan. Segura’s gone, and in his place are the SS tandem of JP Crawford and Tim Beckham, two guys who’ve struggled at times to make contact, but exhibit some power potential. Ben Gamel’s off to Milwaukee in exchange for power-hitting strikeout-prone Domingo Santana. And then, today, the M’s jumped in to the Yankees/Reds Sonny Gray deal and picked up 2B/Util prospect Shed Long in exchange for 2018-draftee and CF prospect Josh Stowers (they DFA’d recently-acquired Kaleb Cowart to make room for Long). These are not the types of players they’d been targeting in the past, but then, they’ve remade some of their development group as well.

Last year and in previous years, the assumption seemed to be that it was easier to teach the finer points of hitting to players who already knew how to make contact. Think of Dan Vogelbach, a guy who was always described as polished and who put up low K rates in the minors despite lacking the in-game power you might want from a 1B prospect. Or Gamel, whose plate discipline and hit tool might make up for power that struggled to play in an OF corner. Or Guillermo Heredia, or Dee Gordon, etc. That logic seems to have been flipped on its head. I’m not suggesting that they only want players who strike out a ton and hit dingers; if that was the case, then Mike Zunino would still be here. Instead, they seem to want to identify players with power potential who may need a bit of help in unlocking it. If that skillset comes with strikeouts, well that’s no longer as big a red flag as it was a year ago.

We’ve seen the M’s target certain types of player before, and as always, there’s an assumption that their coaching staff can help that certain kind of player. Shed Long broke out in 2017, but fell back quite a bit in 2018. His swing produced fly balls and dingers in high A, but his GB rate soared in AA last season. Tim Beckham seemed to have broken out after a trade to the Orioles in 2017, but he cratered on one of the worst teams in recent memory. JP Crawford, like Vogelbach, posted great K:BB numbers in the minors, but looked overmatched at times in the big leagues, and scuffled a bit in the minors as well. If the M’s are right that their new-look staff can help these players, this off-season will be seen as pivotal in retrospect. But the M’s have to show that they can create a system where their coaches can succeed.

I’m no insider here, so I can’t say how the team and its player development staff communicate. But from the outside, the team seems like they’ve struggled in this area. The biggest example was the Dr. Lorena Martin fiasco, in which they seemingly hired someone to oversee all aspects of training, but then balked when the magnitude of that job description clashed with the day-to-day operations of several teams (how would you run workouts in Little Rock, Arkansas, Clinton, Iowa, etc. from Seattle, and how would you communicate your expectations to training staffs and managers, etc.?). I’m not sure what the right balance is between an overarching philosophy that applies organization-wide and granting autonomy/flexibility/adaptability to local coaches is, but I’d argue the M’s haven’t found it yet. This offseason shows some tantalizing evidence that they’ve seen those failures and are determined to correct them.

It’s not about hiring a bunch of new-school, data-driven coaches. Or at least, that’s only a part of it. The M’s reached out to some non-traditional spots to add to their pitching program last year, hiring Brian De Lunas and getting ex-Driveline trainees Cody Buckel to be a coach and Tyler Matzek to pitch. A year later, other orgs are being hailed as savvy modern orgs for hiring Buckel and picking up Matzek after an eye-opening session for scouts. The M’s were ahead of the curve! It didn’t matter! If things are changing, they’ll have plenty of opportunity to demonstrate it with this new crop of flawed-but-intriguing hitters, and we’ll see it when players change levels. If Long starts at Tacoma, as seems to be the plan, how does he improve there, and then how does he transition to the majors? The success of orgs like Houston, whose affiliates led their league in strikeouts *at every level*, demonstrate that PD can create massive advantages. The M’s, for all I find fault them, are not a stupid org. They’ve simply been behind the Astros and others, and haven’t figured out how to harness their own strengths. They seem to be working on doing that now, and I’m intrigued to see if it works.


4 Responses to “The M’s Approach to Hitting Is Changing”

  1. Stevemotivateir on January 22nd, 2019 6:35 am

    Good stuff, Marc.

    Ryon Healy was another one that didn’t fit the profile of what we thought Jerry would target. He didn’t improve upon a poor showing of plate discipline from 2017, so there’s that.

    I just wonder if we’re seeing a trend, or random moves that we’re not likely to see more of.

    The Mariners still need infield prospects. It would be nice if we see some who offer better defense and patience.

  2. Westside guy on January 22nd, 2019 8:00 pm

    It’s spelled “Shed Long”, but it’s pronounced “Throatwarbler Mangrove”.

  3. Westside guy on January 23rd, 2019 12:42 am

    More seriously: I wonder if the departure of Edgar as hitting coach was, in any way, related to this shift in hitting philosophy? While the parallels weren’t perfect (Edgar did walk a fair bit of the time), his personal hitting style did match up well with the previous hitting philosophy – at least to my inexpert eye.

  4. heyoka on January 24th, 2019 10:17 am

    welcome back Ichiro

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