Mariners Magazine | Making It Count
Players often speak about wanting to put together a good at-bat. Sounds right, but exactly what does that mean?
By Kieran O’Dwyer
The following article is from the July issue of Mariners Magazine. Pick up yours today at any Mariners Team Store, or subscribe to receive all six issues (April-September), plus a free 2016 Mariners Yearbook, delivered to your home or office. Each issue is filled with great action photography, up to date news, player stats and feature interviews.
Let’s start with something that everyone should agree on: a good at-bat is one that results in the batter safely reaching base – whether from a base hit, a walk or getting hit by a pitch – without causing a teammate already on base to get forced out. After that, pretty much every other notion about what constitutes a good at-bat becomes less clear and much more subjective.
For example, some contend a sacrifice is a good at-bat – after all, even though the batter gets put out he has helped advance a base runner into a better scoring position, say from first base to second or second to third. Others, however, would counter that any at-bat that ends in an out cannot be good, unless it involves a base runner tagging up from third base to score.
And what about the batter who forces a pitcher to throw 11 pitches before striking out? Could that possibly be a good at-bat? Such was the case for Nelson Cruz against San Diego reliever Ryan Butcher during the seventh inning of Seattle’s memorable comeback from a 10-run deficit against the Padres on June 2 to win 16-13. Though Cruz struck out, it could be argued that the next batter, Kyle Seager, may have benefited by seeing every pitch Butcher had to offer, before coming up himself and lacing a two-run single, the first of seven in a row by the Mariners that led to a thrilling nine-run inning.
Weeks before this game even took place, Seager, in thinking about what constitutes a good at-bat, had already offered: “Not giving easy outs. Of course you’re trying to score runs, so you’re really trying to make the pitcher work. If you can make the pitcher work, even if you do get out, but you’re making him throw good pitches and execute his pitches, being a little stressful in there, that’s what you’re looking for.”
Have A Plan
The discussion about good at-bats and their outcomes could continue through many scenarios, and include the mental side – such as the need to have a clear mind and block out numerous potential distractions, ranging from fear of failing to dealing with various aches and pains to playing in a hostile environment, just to name a few.
But for hitting coach Edgar Martinez the possibility of even having a good at-bat begins well before the batter even steps to the plate.
“Most important is to already have a purpose when you go to the plate,” said Martinez, who hit .312 and owned a .418 on-base percentage during his exceptional 18-year career. “When you have that you got a better chance to have a good at-bat. Good players don’t give up at-bats by looking for one pitch and then swinging at another pitch.
“Even when they get two strikes. Each player is different. Each player chooses an approach of what he’s going to do when he gets to two strikes. And one thing might work for one player but not for another. But each player should have something that they can use when they get to two strikes. Some guys will choke up, some will spread their legs, some get closer to the plate, some will shorten their swing. Each one has something different, but it’s important to use that.
“Most important is to already have a purpose when you go to the plate.”
– Hitting coach Edgar Martinez
“To me, having a plan and a good approach and being prepared are all important. When you have these, it helps you know how the pitcher is throwing to you, how the catcher is calling the game. It’s about being prepared going into the game and being aware during the game. And sticking with that plan.”
Control the Zone
In this era of power-pitching bullpens and record-high strikeout rates among batters, Martinez’s insights on hitting – which align with the philosophy espoused by General Manager Jerry Dipoto, Manager Scott Servais and Director of Player Development Andy McKay – seem more critical than ever for batters to pay attention to.
It’s been well documented by now that the organization has placed particular emphasis on ensuring that all of its players, from Rookie ball to the Majors, possess a sound approach at the plate, that they “control the strike zone” rather than allowing the pitcher to dictate the at-bat. It’s easy to see why. If batters aren’t getting on base, then they aren’t scoring runs – both of which have been significant issues for the Mariners in recent years, having ranked near the bottom of the league in on-base percentage and runs scored.
Prior to the season, Dipoto spoke of signing players who put the ball into play, get on base and are tough outs. Servais subsequently noted: “For the most part, that’s something we said we wanted to address, controlling the strike zone, being a tougher out, and trying to create more opportunities to score runs.”
Thus far, the results of this approach are bearing fruit thanks to a remarkable turnaround in key statistical categories: the Mariners are striking out less, getting on base more and scoring more runs. Through early June, Seattle ranked 23rd (of 30 teams) in the Majors in strikeouts, while placing 5th and 4th overall in OBP and runs scored. Compare that to last season, when the team finished with the 4th most strikeouts in the Majors, while ranking 22nd in OBP and 21st in runs scored.
Statistics bear out that a major factor of whether or not a batter finds success at the plate comes down to the count during the at-bat. Thus, getting into a good hitter’s count is vital to a positive outcome. Through early June, the five counts with the highest rates of success for a batter were 3-0, 3-1, 1-0, 0-0 and 2-0, respectively, according to baseballreference.com. Simply put, the batter’s chances of getting on base are much better when he is ahead in the count.
As for the least successful counts? It’s no surprise that having two strikes (0-2, 1-2, 2-2 and 3-2) and being behind in the count (0-1) offer the least hope for the batter to win the battle at the plate – with the worst being 0-2, during which batters hit .151.
The critical midpoints? The 1-1 and 2-1 counts. Take for example the 1-1 count: batters who get to a 2-1 count hit .334 in that situation, whereas batters who fall to a 1-2 count hit just .163. Similarly, with the 2-1 count, batters who get to a 3-1 count hit .368, whereas batters facing a 2-2 count hit just .174.
With such disparity in numbers determining success versus failure, it’s no wonder the most successful players step to the plate with at least a general plan of attack and, importantly, a clear mind.
“You have to know what kind of a player you are and be completely confident when you go up there,” said Robinson Canó. “There are guys, including myself, who cannot go up there all the time and take one or two strikes. You got to be ready. There are some guys who can take one strike or pitches to get deeper into the count. You got [Norichika] Aoki, he’s a guy that can take a lot of pitches, a guy who is patient at the plate. But not everybody can be like that. You have to know yourself.”
Speaking of Aoki, his solid on-base percentage and low strikeout rate during his Major League career fit right into the Mariners plan to get players on base and scoring more often. Much like Canó, Aoki recognizes that having a good at-bat depends in large part on knowing who he is as a player.
“You have to know what kind of a player you are and be completely confident when you go up there.”
– Robinson Canó
“One of the big things that I was taught is the baseball is a talent related sport,” said the 34-year-old outfielder. “Counts such as 1-0, 2-1, [and] 3-1, I try to put myself in the most advantageous position where I could be aggressive. I’m always trying to be in a better position to hit by being in a good count. I do things a little different from two strikes. I might shorten up the bat. I’ll definitely look at scouting reports to see how the pitcher pitches with two strikes. And then just try not to be an easy out.
“Especially because I’m not a big power guy, I’m not going to go out there and hit 20 or 30 home runs, so I have to really put myself in a good position to succeed. I feel every player is unique. I just try to bring what I can to the table. All the effort I’ve put in over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m this type of a hitter and this is what I need to do to succeed.”
Feed the Machine
Back to that game against San Diego. The Mariners had cut into the Padres seemingly insurmountable 12-2 lead by plating five runs in the sixth inning, including a three-run blast by Dae-Ho Lee. Even so, according to baseballreference.com, Seattle’s chances of winning the game as they entered the seventh inning stood at two percent. Of course, 13 batters came to the plate that inning, resulting in nine runs on eight hits, one walk and one hit batsman. True to himself, Aoki started the rally by making contact on a 1-2 pitch and hitting a grounder up the third-base line for an infield single. Interestingly, five of the eight hits came with two strikes. Go figure!
It’s worth noting that through five innings, Padres starter Colin Rea had set the Mariners down in order in three innings, while facing only 18 batters and throwing just 64 pitches, including four innings of 13-or-fewer pitches. So, were all or most of those Mariners plate appearances “bad” at-bats? Not necessarily; Seattle just happened to be facing a pitcher who, early on, was locating his pitches and getting ahead in the count. Of the 15 outs the Mariners made through the first five innings, 10 were recorded by Rea in favorable pitchers’ counts of 0-1, 0-2 and 1-2.
Of course, baseball is a nine-inning game and during the sixth and seventh innings the Mariners began to take advantage of a tiring Rea and then, perhaps channeling their inner Seager, made the revolving door of four relievers work hard and feel the stress of each at-bat. Of Seattle’s 22 at-bats in those two innings, only one out came in one of those three pitchers’ counts. Meanwhile, six at-bats were pushed to full counts, resulting in three hits and a walk – with all four batters eventually scoring.
Ultimately, the best result of a good at-bat is one that produces a run – whether by getting on base and scoring, or by sacrificing a runner home. Clearly, Servais was on to something about the 2016 Mariners when he pointed out: “[We’re] going to play tight games, so [it’s] the ability to get on base and create consistent opportunities to score. And it’s not just a double off the wall and somebody gets a hit to drive them in, or you hit one out of the park. It’s a walk, it’s a hit, you move a guy over, you get a sac-fly. It’s different ways to score.”
And it starts with a good at-bat.
Kieran O’Dwyer is a freelance sportswriter based in New York.