The blame game
Hitting coach Tim Laker and Mitch Haniger at spring training 2019
May 24, 2021
The Mariners are terrible when it comes to swinging the bats. Why is that? Who's at fault? Where should we fans be directing our outrage and our demands for accountability?
Alas, there is no one answer to that. Singling out one party for the historically bad offensive production being offered by Your Seattle Mariners would be nothing more than naming a scapegoat, and as much as we would like to see ostensible batting coach Tim Laker get the metaphorical axe, it's not entirely his fault that Seattle sits at the bottom of the American League rankings for batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, overall hits, and total bases.
This is an organizational failing with two basic components:
- The M's as a whole have bought into the Statcast obsession with power hitting. Analytics are great, the new technologies and measurements of various things like exit velocity and spin rates for pitchers have useful applications, for sure. But there is an unhealthy focus on "launch angles" and home runs and slugging as the basis for hitting a baseball. Contact, working counts, and getting on base are, at best, secondary considerations under this philosophy.
- There is a distinct lack of patience with player development. Too-quick promotions of prospects to the Major Leagues have done a disservice to some of the most valuable assets in the Mariners' system. Kyle Lewis, Evan White, Taylor Trammell, Jarred Kelenic, Logan Gilbert, Justin Dunn, Luis Torrens, Aaron Fletcher, Yohan Ramírez, and others were deprived of sufficient experience at the Triple-A level and were dropped right into the deep end of big-league competition to be crushed. Lewis had a great first month in the Majors before a swift dose of humility and Dunn has used his time with Seattle to good effect and is getting better with the experience. The others have yet to see any success to speak of and could really use time playing against Triple-A competition as a bridge. Trammell and Torrens are now belatedly getting that experience, and they'll be better for it.
Having just been swept in a three-game series by the San Diego Padres, the M's got schooled in how to do things right. The Padres were the anti-Mariners this past weekend: they worked counts, they took advantage of defensive placements and hit to undefended parts of the field, they swung the bat with a base-hit approach rather than a home-run approach, and when balls did leave the yard it wasn't because the batter was looking for the right launch angle but because of a solid line-drive swing on a juicy pitch. San Diego had 33 hits in the three games, 20 of them singles, and of their five homers three were by one guy, Fernando Tatis Jr. They drew 19 walks. The Padres' collective on-base mark for the series was .434. The Mariners? 22 hits, 14 singles, one homer. Eight walks. OBP of .291.
Now, this is clearly not an apples-to-apples comparison. The Padres are one of the best teams in baseball, a largely veteran club with really good starting pitching while the M's were trotting out a lineup half-filled with should-be-Triple-A players. But regardless, there is a lot to be learned from San Diego's approach at the plate.
The Mariners' futility is not all Laker's fault, obviously. Much blame has to be shared by manager Scott Servais and GM Jerry Dipoto for their decisions with the roster and for leapfrogging so many guys over Triple-A, and the focus on home runs and launch angles is endorsed by them. But at this stage of a rebuild, Servais and Dipoto aren't going to lose their jobs, so if any personnel move can be made that might help, Laker's is the head to roll. Some Mariner players disagree, notably Mitch Haniger, but Haniger is a big reason why Laker was hired in the first place—Haniger spent offseasons working with Laker and associates at an instructional facility that is heavily reliant on new technologies and analytics, and as Dipoto put it, the M's wanted to bring what hitters were getting from the outside "in-house." Haniger defends Laker as being prepared and hard-working, and that's certainly true. "Laker is really good at conveying what he’s thinking, and what he wants me to do," Haniger said. But working hard on a failing plan isn't helpful. And even if it does help Haniger (does it, though?), it clearly doesn't help the rest of the team.
San Diego, on the other hand, replaced their new-age analytics-based hitting coach, Johnny Washington, prior to last year. In 2019, the Padres ranked last in the league in hits, average, and strikeouts and were 13th of 15 NL teams in OBP at .308. Washington out, new coach Damion Easley in. (To be more complete, they also changed managers, so new ideas from the top.) A 17-year big-league veteran player, Easley was an All-Star infielder at his peak, becoming a respected hitter after joining the Detroit Tigers in the mid-’90s. The Padres' batters love him, too. "He can relate to you in the box," said San Diego first baseman Eric Hosmer of Easley. "He can relate to the adjustments we have to make, can relate to how we attack a certain pitcher and the way we attack a certain pitcher. So it’s been great working with him." Padre outfielder Wil Myers agrees, saying, "It’s nice to see a guy like him who has a clue how to communicate with players. You have a guy who was in the game for a long time, did a lot of great things. It’s about thought process. It’s not about, ‘Oh, you’re getting disconnected’ or ‘Oh, your swing isn't [angled right]’." Under Easley, the Padres' OBP is second in the NL and .336 since he took over.
A new hitting coach will not solve all of the Mariners' problems. But it would be a sign that they want to move in that direction.