The Mariners' anemic lineup
Tom Murphy has struck out in 37% of his plate appearances this season
May 5, 2021
You might have noticed something while watching Your Seattle Mariners play baseball this year: They don't hit much. In fact, the M's are 29th of 30 MLB teams in batting average, with a whopping .207 mark. Taken as a whole, the Mariners are basically Mario Mendoza.
That's not good. On the other hand, most every team is hitting poorly. Well, not the Angels, they have Trout. But generally. Major League Baseball's overall batting average is .233 right now. That's as low a number as MLB has ever seen. The composite on-base percentage, .310, is the lowest since 1968, the year that had a batting champion hit .301 and prompted the lowering of the pitcher's mound. Almost everyone is slumming it.
Hitters across the leagues are obsessed with exit velocity and launch angles and are thus striking out at an incredible rate—according to Jayson Stark at The Athletic, as reliable a source as there is, there had never before this month been any month in the history of the game of baseball wherein there were more strikeouts across the league than there were hits. But here we are, May 2021, and there are 6,471 hits tallied and 7,600 strikeouts, or 1.17 Ks per hit.
But "everyone else is doing it" is a lousy reason to misbehave, and the Mariners are even more pathetic than the league at large—1.46 strikeouts per hit. There are reasons for the K explosion, from Statcast fixations to overvaluing home runs to rushing rookies to the Majors before they're ready. But the Mariners need to change their ways, and they need to do it as an organization from the top down. There are only three players on the Seattle club that have more hits than strikeouts—Mitch Haniger, J.P. Crawford, and Kyle Seager. That's it. And several have way more Ks than hits. Taylor Trammell has struck out 44% of the time. Dylan Moore 34%. Ditto José Marmolejos. Tom Murphy, 37%. Evan White is actually one of the better Mariners in this respect, he's only K-ing at a 27% clip. Crawford is best on the team at 19%.
Looked at in isolation, the K rate is just a curiosity—I mean, the M's are over .500, they're scoring runs at about league average—but when you start factoring in context a real issue begins to form and it's this: The Mariners do not care about fundamental baseball. They do not teach it, they do not practice it, they do not seem to believe that "situational hitting" is a thing.
Take the current series against the Baltimore Orioles. In Monday and Tuesday night's contests, the Orioles started pitchers who have been lit up this season. Dean Kremer had yet to finish five innings in a start and had amassed a juicy ERA of 8.40. Jorge López's ERA was 7.48. Lots of hits allowed. What did the Mariners do when facing them? Scored one run off of each. One, and on solo home runs at that. Now, OK, even the lousiest of pitchers can have a good day; give those guys some credit. But the Mariners' approach was the same all around—big swings, no adjustments. Monday they managed to score three runs in losing, all coming in on homers. Tuesday they pulled out a win, scoring late against a pretty good Baltimore relief corps, but again the same approach all the time.
The best example of this contextual malpractice came in the bottom of the 7th inning Tuesday night. The score is tied at 1-1 and the Orioles have gone to their ’pen, which has been much better than most of their starters. Seattle's had a hell of a time scoring runs even off guys with seven-and-a-half ERAs, and Luis Torrens leads off the frame with a double. Outstanding! This is a close game, time for some fundamental strategy! What's the goal for the next batter, Evan White? Well, it should be to move Torrens to third base. Since White is likely not well versed in the art of the bunt, his instruction should be to hit behind the runner, that is, punch one the opposite way (to the right side) so Torrens can move up on a grounder or a deepish fly ball. He actually gets a number of pitches in the at-bat that are well-suited for this, but he doesn't take advantage. Instead, after taking a massive swing at a pitch not at all suited for going the opposite way, he takes an ideal offering, an off-speed delivery on the outside black of the plate knee-high. It's called a ball, but that doesn't matter, it was the perfect pitch on which to do his job. Next pitch is a fat one, but he swings through it, hard. Then he takes another home-run cut and foul-tips the final pitch into the catcher's mitt for a strikeout. J.P. Crawford is next up, and he's looking good running the count to 3-and-1, but he ends up striking out too. For good measure, not that it matters anymore, Dylan Moore also strikes out to end the frame.
The problem isn't that White struck out there, it's that White was doing the same thing in that circumstance that he would do with nobody on and two out. He wasn't given any instruction otherwise. It apparently didn't occur to him to take a different approach on his own. His upbringing through the Mariners' system did not instill in him a contextual approach to his plate appearances. His hitting coach, if we can indeed call Tim Laker by that title, has not made situational hitting any kind of priority and clearly has no issue with making the first out on strikes with a runner in scoring position in the late innings of a tight game. If White had tried and failed, OK, that's one for the learning curve, but he didn't try.
Sam Haggerty is the only guy on the roster that seems to know how to play this kind of game. Kyle Seager has been around long enough to know how to drive in a big run. As for the other ten non-pitchers on the active team? I ain't seeing it. The young guys that came up through other organizations and paid their dues in Triple-A, Ty France and Crawford and Haggerty (though not Marmo, it seems he's always been a swing-for-the-fences guy even in the Nats' system), at least look like they can execute some contact when they need to, or at least like they know to try. The ones that came up in the Mariners' minors and/or spent little to no time in Triple-A clearly need to be taught.
I say to GM Jerry Dipoto: Interview hitting coaches. Look around for someone not a slave to Statcast, who doesn't preach "launch angles." One who knows about power-versus-contact swings and when each is appropriate. Because there has to be someone better out there looking for a gig. And if not, I have to wonder if the M's wouldn't be better off with nobody in that role than keeping Tim Laker in it. I mean, what does he do? What is he telling these guys?
The Mets just fired their hitting coach, Chili Davis, after just 23 games. They're last in the National League in runs scored, but with a week's fewer games than most; the Mets are fourth in the NL in batting average, third in OBP. But they're the New York Mets, and they just gave Francisco Lindor a boatload of money to start the year in a huge slump, so someone had to pay to satiate the Big Apple sportsradio mob. But this was to be Davis' third year as the Mets' batting guru and over the previous two years his Mets hit a collective .261 (the MLB average, um, average was .250; Seattle's was .234). Even more remarkable, the Mets' team OBP from 2019-2020 was .365 (Seattle's team OBP for that span? .313). In addition to Lindor's struggles, the Mets' rationale for firing Davis was that he wasn't a slave to the launch angle. "This isn't about recent results," Mets GM Zach Scott told the press. It was about leaning hard into the Statcast era. The Mets want their analytics department to dictate terms to the coaching staff and they replaced Davis with Hugh Quattlebaum, who was, you got it, the Mariners' minor-league hitting coordinator from 2018-’19 and an assistant hitting coach last year. So, yeah, good luck with that, Mets.
Meanwhile, can we please take a chance on Davis? The Mets canned him despite his popularity with their players for not kowtowing to the altar of Statcast and for advocating situational hitting; the Cubs fired him after 2018 because he clashed with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who used their star power to pressure ownership to make a change because Davis wasn't on board with their desire to emphasize launch angles and the home-run-or-bust philosophy.
Those sound like excellent qualifications for a replacement for Tim Laker.