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The Mariners' "control the zone" strategy sounds a lot like Theo Epstein's Cubs Way

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Honestly, I was a little disappointed when the Mariners' search for a new general manager didn't include a single candidate from the Chicago Cubs. There was that weird premature Jason McLeod rumor but, save for that, no visible interest in anyone from one of the top organizations in baseball—one of the top player development organizations in baseball, a skill the Mariners sorely need.

Still, it didn't take a whole lot to come around on Jerry Dipoto. He sounded bright, the ideas presented were sound and, hey, he worked as a scout for Theo Epstein way back in 2003 and 2004. When I first realized that, I feigned amusement and momentarily considered the possibility that meant something before quickly moving on.

Well, it turns out there might be a link there between Dipoto and Epstein—and it revolves around that "control the zone" strategy the Mariners have touted. Again, for reference:

That video the organization put out on Twitter was decried a bit, particularly in these parts, as being something of a fluff piece, and in a way it was. It was marketing after all. A different kind of marketing than we're used to, but marketing all the same.

But because something is marketing doesn't mean the message it's portraying is without merit or substance. The strategy presented therein, placing emphasis on controlling the strike zone, is something the Jerry Dipoto regime has been pushing since he was hired.

Here's Jerry Dipoto speaking at a season ticketholder Q&A late during the 2015 season:

You have to teach players to have an approach, you have to teach them how to have a routine. I had breakfast  with Lloyd McClendon this morning and Lloyd and I talked about the idea of player development, of teaching players the value of a routine. And that way when they’re coming through the San Bernadinos, and the Jacksons and the kids are in Bakersfield or Toledo, wherever they are in the minor leagues, the day that they step out on a big league field, they’re ready to be big league players

We are going to work with them everyday on their approach. It is critical in our minor league system that they learn how to control the strike zone. One of the things that we have preached, and this goes back in my career for 15 years is you have to understand what controlling the strike zone means the day you enter professional baseball.

Our pitchers will learn the value of throwing strike one from the day they step on the field. There will be a chart posted in the dugout everyday that shows them what the batting average is against when you’re ahead in the count and when you’re behind in the count—and then advantages of being in those situations. It tends to slow your heart down, you think about it in a positive way. We’re going to build the players up in order to give them the confidence to play at this level. It’s too easy to break them down. We can tell them, we can go out into the minor league system and tell them they’re not good enough, and then they won’t be. Or we can encourage them to grow in certain areas. [...]

When they come out of the player development system, they’re going to be ready to go. They may not have leadership traits, and will probably not be able to get their heart to beat at the same pace that say a Robbie Cano’s beats, but in time they will be able to adjust because they have a sound approach, they understand how to control the strike zone and they know how to play winning baseball.

Manager Scott Servais echoed a similar sentiment in a media session at the Winter Meetings, when asked about the idea of being a football coach in a baseball uniform:

What I mean by that is I think football coaches are the most prepared and detailed of any of the coaches because they practice so much, they have to be. And in football, the game is won at the line of scrimmage. Over at CenturyLink, they control the line of scrimmage, they win the game… Where is the line of scrimmage in baseball? For me, the line of scrimmage in baseball is the strike zone. You have to control the strike zone, whether you’re on the mound or in the batter’s box. Controlling the strike zone, swinging at good pitches, getting deep in counts, walking maybe a little bit more. And on the flip side, controlling the strike zone, keeping the pitch count down, getting deep in the games, having a chance to win games as a starting pitcher, that’s where it happens, in the strike zone. So looking at the numbers, is there any particular number? Walks to strikeout. Pitching side, hitting side, that’s where the game is won.

When I first heard the quote, specifically the overwrought line of scrimmage analogy, I thought it was forced and a deliberate way to work in the Seahawks.

Well, it turns out it isn't new—and it's really a thing. Here's a snippet from an article by Alden Gonzalez, from May of 2015:

"When I first got here and we had our first organizational meeting in the winter of 2011," general manager Jerry Dipoto said, "we really started pounding our coaches and rovers and Minor League managers that this was what we were going to be about. We were going to control the strike zone, we were going to command counts, we were going to find pitchers that could attack the strike zone and we were going to find hitters that could get into hitters' counts."

The Angels would scout differently, drafting amateur players whose skill sets could translate to the Major Leagues, avoiding what Dipoto called "the red balloon" -- the shiny, toolsy prospect with high upside but lots of risk. And they would live by this mantra:

The strike zone is baseball's line of scrimmage, and he who controls the line of scrimmage controls the game.

That "line of scrimmage" cliche stuck with me as I took a look around for other teams who deployed a similar philosophy. It stuck with me, and then jumped out at me when I came across this in a Joe Posnaski article:

When I talked with Chicago’s Theo Epstein, he made it even clearer. His overriding philosophy of baseball is this – you must control the strike zone. He believes that is true of pitchers (throw strikes, get ground balls) and hitters (swing at pitches you can drive). The strike zone, in his mind, is like football’s line of scrimmage. Control it, and you win.

Everyone must say that though, right? I mean, it sounds pretty cliche. Surprisingly, no. Run a Google search for 'control strike zone line of scrimmage' and the first page is all Cubs, Mariners and Angels.

This is a big thing for Theo, and for the Cubs.

When the Cubbies were at their highest, during their playoff run last year, Theo went on the radio(mp3) the day after their big game 3 win over the Cardinals and was asked specifically about what has been called the Cubs Way (h/t Matthew Trueblood for the find). Here's what he said, emphasis added (~19:30, if you want to listen):

One thing, we didn’t come in with a Cubs Way. That was a collective process. I took a little bit from the Red Sox, what we did over there, but we didn’t want to just replicate the Red Sox way. We didn’t come in with it. The first thing we did when we got here, I think it was within the first two weeks of being a Cub, we had organizational meetings where the 125 people you saw last night, we brought them to a hotel down in Mesa and we spent four days figuring out what the Cubs Way would be—putting together the collective wisdom of all the people in the room. Scouts have been doing it for 40 years, development guys have been doing it for 30 years.

Me and the guys in the front office, we spent a day on hitting, a day on pitching, a day on baserunning and defense, figuring out what it was we were going to stand for, how we were going to teach the game, what was the Cubs Way going to be. We didn’t all agree, but in the end we got together and figured out what we would be as an organization and, not going to go into too much detail, but a lot of it revolves around controlling the strike zone on both sides of the ball.

As an offense, we want to control that zone, be disciplined hitters, not go outside the zone, get into good counts and then do damage on pitches that you can drive. You saw it last night. Everyone talks about those six home runs, but the reason we hit those six home runs is because we had a really good approach, we didn’t expand, we forced him into the zone and did damage on pitches that we can handle.

We’ve gone from last in the league in pitches per plate appearance, gotten better every single year, and now we’re first. We walked a tremendous amount, our on-base percentage is now where it should be. We were last in the league in batting average. I think that tells you all you need to know about how important sometimes batting average can be.

And then on the pitching side, same thing. Strike one. Don’t let the hitter control the at-bat, control the strike zone, but get ahead, be able to miss bats and throw strikes.

Sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it?

Why might it? Well, to be blunt, if you're to assign him to one, Dipoto does belong on the Epstein executive tree. And though he was only in Boston a short period of time, after a short stop in Colorado it was off for his extended stay in Arizona, under general manager Josh Byrnes—who, before that role, was an assistant GM under Theo Epstein.

And this philosophy goes way back, before even Dipoto's time in Boston. Here's Ben Cherington, from Baseballl America, in 2002:

"We talk about hitters controlling the strike zone. We want our pitchers doing the same thing. We want our hitters to be selective and get in good hitter’s counts.

"The opposite is true of a pitcher. The more we get ahead in the count, the more efficient we are with our pitches, the more of a defensive position it puts the hitter into. Control the strike zone."

But yeah. This is a thing. It still leaves a couple questions, probably more—but we might as well address a few.

If this is so great, what happened with Dipoto in Los Angeles?

Well, that's an interesting one and, with this in mind, makes the very few details we have on the disagreement between Dipoto and Mike Scoscia all the more interesting. Those scant details, the best ones I can find, come from this Jonah Keri piece. call this a new-school-vs.-old-school breakdown would be to miss the point. This wasn’t an organization demanding the use of sabermetric data or the implementation of a more aggressive shifting strategy. Last weekend’s arguments had more to do with basic problems: addressing the hot and cold zones of opposing hitters, understanding pull tendencies, and knowing what to expect from opposing pitchers.

Now, you don't want to jump to conclusions, but if "control the strike zone" is one of your overarching baseball ops strategies, and you can't implement it at the Major League level, there's bound to be frustration.

And the second question: the Mariners were doing this before, what gives?

Well, to start, it isn't entirely shocking they did this before. Baseball's a small community. These things get around, and so do the people behind them. There are (were?) multiple people in the front office who were with Dipoto and Byrnes in Arizona. This included the man who'd been previously tabbed as the Mariners' offensive coordinator, in Jack Howell, before he departed for the Angels.

Finally, because the Mariners deployed this strategy before doesn't mean it's actually the same strategy—or will have the same results. I mentioned this the first time, that any strategy is only as good as its execution. I imagine Dipoto has some ideas on how he plans to change the player development system, and we've already seen some of them.

But different isn't inherently better. It's impressive and encouraging to see the Mariners apparently share a core strategic concept with one of the smartest organizations in baseball, but it doesn't mean the results will be the same. Again, it all comes down to the execution.

Still, though as simplistic as this entire strategy does seem to be, sometimes that simple nature of strategies and processes is important. To wrap it up, we'll kick it back to Theo one more time—from that previously referenced interview.

It's all about people, and it's all about processes. This organization is really, really healthy right now because of the people that we brought in, the character of people, the work ethic, the selflessness and then the processes. You can't just sit down and say "oh, here's how we want to build a successful major league team." You have to, in each little area of baseball operations, in the draft, in international to pro scouting to player development to the big league team to the rules to working out contracts, you have to have processes that make you right a little more often than you're wrong and try to be a little bit better than the other 29 organizations.

We spend a lot of time questioning ourselves, asking how we can do things better. One thing we've done okay is create an environment where people are allowed to question—question me, question Jason [McLeod], Jed [Hoyer]—all working together on this stuff so we get the processes we trust. If you have the people of high character, and talent and processes that you trust, you don't need that affirmation because you know eventually you're going to get there.

The Mariners still need the talent, and the people haven't proven anything here yet, but in starting to implement a process-driven approach it appears they're taking a step in the right direction.