The brightest minds and some of the top young hitters in the Seattle Mariners' organization gathered recently in Peoria, Ariz., for a four-day “hitting summit.” Think of it as a state-of-the-art think tank to combat the great wave of power pitching that has turned this era of baseball into one based on run prevention, not run production. But inside the classroom walls and batting cages, the future of hitting instruction sounded a lot like the past: put the ball in play.
The overriding, self-styled theme of the summit was “Control the Zone.” The Mariners' instructors talked about concepts such as “getting into good counts,” “being selective but aggressive” and “being in a good position to hit” with “separation on the back side.” But the syllabus also included the key acknowledgement that modern baseball has changed so much that hitters have to learn how to make contact with two strikes. The two-strike approach, which disappeared for a generation, is not just back, but is also once again a fundamental part of winning baseball.
“They heard a lot about a two-strike approach and the value of putting the ball in play,” said first-year Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto.
So began the Mariners’ quest to turn an offense that produced the third-fewest runs in the American League last year into a state-of-the-art attack.
“This may or not be factually accurate, but I think it’s harder to draw a walk in today’s game than it’s ever been,” Dipoto said. “There’s been a debate among people for years that there are players that have the walk ‘skill’—it is something they possess. The one thing we do know you can affect as a hitter is reducing the number of strikeouts. As long as you are able to control the zone in that way with two strikes and put the ball in play good things can happen.
“If we’re in an era when you’re not just going to walk as you did in the early 2000s, you have to find a different way to keep the traffic moving," continued the 47-year-old Dipoto, who pitched for three teams over eight major league seasons from 1993 to 2000. "Baseball is a cyclical game, and right now it’s a little closer to the game I grew up watching and not the game when I played. You need to get to those eight-, nine-, 10-pitch at-bats and grind on those 3–2 counts. George Brett was a great example. He’d get to two strikes and he got flat with the bat and spread out. That’s when the at-bat was on. I found those hitters remarkable, and I place a high value on that.
“I don’t think it’s something you can magically transfer," he continued. "If nothing else, if we get on base more frequently and have a better approach with two strikes, we’ll be better.”
Dipoto and first-year manager Scott Servais held hitting summits with minor-league prospects when they worked in the Angels' organization, but nothing on this scale, in which the major league and minor-league hitters heard from Servais, major league hitting coach Edgar Martinez and hitting instructors from every level of the organization. Sixteen Mariners attended (most of them young players), including Alex Jackson, Jesus Montero, D.J. Peterson, Boog Powell, Chris Taylor and Mike Zunino. Just as importantly, the summit established concepts that will be emphasized throughout the system.
That Dipoto and Servais would convene a hitting summit is in itself a comment on the state of the game. For years, it was common for teams to bring pitchers together before spring training, such as the famed Mazzone Camp of former Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone. But the offense/defense balance has swung so far toward pitching—more and more pitchers used in shorter bursts with more velocity—that hitting needs the attention.
During the last decade, too many hitters were fighting the last war—they grew up watching the Yankees and Red Sox “drive up pitch counts” and “take walks.” But conceding strikes in today’s game toward winning the at-bat with a walk gets you nowhere.
Here’s all you need to know about why hitters must change: Strikeouts are going up and walks are going down. The rate of strikeouts per game has increased 10 consecutive years, hitting record heights in each of the past eight seasons.
Meanwhile, Dipoto was partially correct about the difficulty in getting a walk in today’s game: It’s never been harder since the designated hitter was added in 1973. The per-game rate of walks has been 2.90 or less for two straight years—the first time that’s happened since 1919 and '20.
What’s the big deal about strikeouts? Don’t they count the same as any other out? A few years ago, for instance, Evan Longoria of the Rays told me he doesn’t bother with a two-strike approach because he wants to use all three swings to hit the ball hard, arguing that he could “just put the ball in play” with a shorter swing with two strikes, but what’s the point if the result is a roll-over grounder to third?
The problem with that thinking is that as strikeouts become more prevalent, putting the ball in play gains value. Did you watch last year's World Series? Actually, did you watch the past seven World Series? It’s getting harder to get to the Fall Classic with a team that strikes out often. Let’s look at all World Series teams in two seven-year windows—the last seven years and the seven years before that—and see how many of them ranked among the five toughest teams in their league to strike out:
Won World Series
2009 to '15
2002 to '08
You can see the premium growing on making contact. Eleven of the past 14 World Series teams were tough to strike out, including six of the past seven champions. (The exception: the 2013 Red Sox, who led the league in runs, on-base percentage and slugging despite ranking 12th in strikeouts.)
Now think about how ill-equipped the Mariners have been to succeed in this run-prevention, swing-and-miss environment. Here are their league rankings in making contact since 2009: 13, 11, 15, 10, 14, 12, 13. They haven’t been a top five run-scoring club since 2001.
Last year, under GM Jack Zduriencik, Seattle looked at the home run as the way forward. The Mariners did hit 62 more home runs than they did the year before, but they also lost 11 more games. What happened? One of their problems was they couldn’t put the ball in play in key spots. They were, by far, the worst in the league at hitting with runners in scoring position (.231, with a league-worst 344 strikeouts) and the worst in the league at hitting relief pitching (.226).
If only because of changes in personnel, the Mariners are virtually guaranteed to be a better rally team this year. They essentially swapped out five regulars: catcher Zunino, first baseman Logan Morrison, shortstop Brad Miller, centerfielder Austin Jackson and rightfielder Mark Trumbo are out; Chris Iannetta, Adam Lind, Ketel Marte, Leonys Martin and Nori Aoki are in. The five displaced Mariners struck out in 23.3% of their plate appearances, well above the league average of 19.9%. The five replacements struck out in just 17.4% of their plate appearances.
When asked if he expects the Mariners will be a better rally team, Dipoto said, “Absolutely. I think some of that is due to the different styles of personnel that should help in that regard. Nori Aoki all by himself will help quite a bit, the way he controls the strike zone. It’s the same message with our pitching staff: control the zone. Look at the free bases. We don’t want them. We want to play smart, to play quick and to play strong. The way to do that on offense is to get in good hitting counts.”
Under new director of player development Andy McKay, the Mariners have established the titles of minor league “offensive coordinator” (Jack Howell) and “defensive coordinator” (Dan Wilson). Martinez enters his first full year as the major league hitting coach.
“Scott and Edgar ran the first two days together, incorporating our scouting people,” Dipoto said. “I don’t think it could have gone much better. Edgar came in the first day and this was all new to him, and by the second day, he was as comfortable as anybody.”
What the Mariners are doing is similar to the changes the Pirates adopted two years ago. After Pittsburgh finished 2013 ranked next to last in hitting with runners in scoring position, it made contact hitting and situational hitting a major focus of its '14 spring training. The results have been dramatic: With runners in scoring position, the Pirates have improved from .230 (14th) to .249 (seventh) to .272 (third). The world champion Royals are the most obvious example of the emphasis of contact over power in today’s game—though it’s important to remember how long their plan needed to bake. Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas all had bouts of failure in the big leagues before they succeeded.
Will it work for Seattle? The Mariners have a deeper roster and more contact hitters in their lineup, so they almost certainly will improve on the disappointment of 2015. They at least have played themselves into the role of a contender, if not made up enough ground on Texas and Houston in the AL West. Whether they can end the longest playoff drought in the majors (14 years) will depend as much on their bullpen as the offensive upgrade.
Give Dipoto and Servais this much credit: They acknowledge how the game has changed and, especially because they play in a pitcher-friendly ballpark, they knew they had to change the roster and the approach. The hitting summit was the official start.
Prospects' mock Hall of Fame vote shows tough road for candidates
Here’s a good reminder of how hard it is for anybody to get elected to the Hall of Fame, especially steroid-tainted players, when enshrinement requires 75% of the vote. When Major League Baseball held its annual Rookie Career Development seminar last month, it had a mock Hall of Fame election among the 104 invited players. They were given the same ballot that goes out to the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
You might think of this voting body—baseball players who were toddlers when the Steroid Era raged—would be kind to guys like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Think again: Only one player “won” the prospects’ election. It’s another reminder that the BBWAA vote isn’t “wrong,” but that the choice some players made to use PEDs polarizes any voting body.
Here are results of the mock election from among the best prospects in baseball:
Ken Griffey Jr.: 85%
Mike Piazza: 65%
Barry Bonds: 61%
Trevor Hoffman: 47%
Curt Schilling: 45%
Roger Clemens: 44%
Edgar Martinez: 38%
Nomar Garciaparra: 35%
Mark McGwire: 34%
Sammy Sosa: 33%
Jeff Bagwell: 33%
Larry Walker: 33%
Jim Edmonds: 30%
Billy Wagner: 30%
Other notables who finished far out of the race were Mike Mussina (19%), Tim Raines (17%) and Jeff Kent (10%).
Ronald Torreyes, perpetual wanderer
You might not have heard of Ronald Torreyes, but he is the face of how major league teams, especially the Dodgers and Yankees, manipulate their rosters like never before in baseball history. Torreyes is a 23-year-old, contact-hitting infielder who in the past eight months has moved from the Astros to the Blue Jays to the Dodgers to the Yankees to the Angels to the Yankees again. New York signed him Monday, opening a roster spot for him by designating outfielder Lane Adams—a complete reversal of their move just 17 days ago, when they designated Torreyes to add Adams. Got that? Wait, it’s even more complicated.
Since Torreyes was signed by the Reds in 2010, he has changed teams seven times, never spending more than 22 months with any one of them: the Reds (18 months), Cubs (19 months), Astros (22 months), Blue Jays (27 days), Dodgers (six months), Yankees (three days), Angels (two days) and Yankees (one day so far). That’s not a career; that’s a navigation system gone berserk.