Back in the first week of January, when the front office still had that new car smell, Jerry Dipoto assembled everyone who is responsible for hitting in the organization, along with a group of 16 players, and conducted an intensive institute on how hitting would be taught in the club. Topics addressed included the now-infamous “Control the Zone,” along with understanding what type of a hitter you are: contact, gap-to-gap, or power hitter (I’m sure there was a very scientific way they figured this out but I like the idea of everyone sitting around taking a magazine quiz: “Your idea of a perfect date is A) just trying to make a connection; B) going where no one else is; C) FIREWORKS AND EXPLOSIONS”). Players divided their time between the classroom and the cages, and were sent home with “homework”—specific things, tailored to each player, to work on during the month before they reported to for Spring Training.
Fast forward to August, and the lessons from that early January meeting still loom large in the organization. The Mariners consider the hitting summit to be “wildly successful,” according to Andy McKay, so much so that they are reformatting how the organization approaches instructional leagues. This year, the Mariners will replace the traditional instructional league games with a series of week-long intensive seminars on a variety of topics. While this isn’t an enormous shift from a baseball perspective—several teams don’t field instructional teams; the Cubs and Tigers both didn’t in 2015—it represents a major pedagogical shift within the Mariners organization.
In education, there are two major types of assessment: summative and formative. Summative assessment happens after a unit of instruction and focuses on outcomes (a unit test is a summative assessment), while formative assessment occurs during the learning process as a way to gauge how well students are grasping the material and what, if any, educational interventions need to occur. For baseball players, every game is a summative assessment—a chance to “show what you know.” They are product, not process, oriented. While instructional leagues feature more relaxed rules, a game environment is necessarily different from the experience of working in a batting cage, throwing in a bullpen, or taking grounders on an empty infield, environments which allow for much more in the way of formative assessment. Formative assessment allows both student and teacher to provide feedback to direct the learning activity and is correlated to much higher positive outcomes for student achievement, as well as increased student engagement due to its individualized nature. As I wrote about back in May, once again the Mariners are embracing proven pedagogical strategies, this time at the lowest levels of the organization.
It remains to be seen if these strategies will translate from the classroom to the baseball diamond, but we can at least look at the performance of the members of the inaugural hitting summit for clues. I wasn’t able to turn up the name of every participant through Google sleuthing/social media spying, but the names that were reported are: Alex Jackson, Drew Jackson, D.J. Peterson, Mike Zunino, Tyler O’Neill, Boog Powell, Chris Taylor, and Jesús Montero. Leaving aside Boog (sigh), and Taylor and Montero, who are now with other teams, let’s compare how everyone is doing this year, post-hitting summit, with their previous performances:
It’s no secret that Alex Jackson’s 2015 kind of sucked. In Everett he held an uninspiring .239/.365/.466, buoyed by 8 HRs and 11 doubles, but in 28 games at Clinton, he slashed a dreadful .157/.240/.213 with no dingers and just 6 doubles. He did manage to cut down his strikeouts at low-A, all the way down to 29% from 31%. He also recorded just 6 walks, for a BB rate of 5%. Jackson is repeating Clinton this year and so far the numbers have improved. His slash line is up to .247/.333/.415, and his strikeouts are down slightly (very slightly. Like 1% slightly). What’s encouraging is his walk rate, which has nearly doubled, to 9%. It would be nice to see the strikeouts further decrease, but Jackson is still so young—he can’t even legally drink!—that there’s time for him to make adjustments.
This is Drew’s first year of full-season pro ball, after he was assigned straight to Bakersfield, so his numbers are trickier to compare, especially considering the fact that he basically drove a backhoe through the Northwest league last year. Ethan wrote a nice overview of him here. While his slash line was bound to come back to earth, the important thing was that Drew not fall off a cliff offensively with his aggressive assignment to Bakersfield. His 8% walk rate suggests that the lessons of C the Z have stuck with the Stanford-educated shortstop, while his K% of 17.4 is career-best. Drew Jackson is, from all accounts, an extremely polite young man who I’m sure would never flip off his Steamer projections, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do it for him.
Ah, Tyler O’Neill. The maple-syrup-scented gem of the Mariners’ farm system. All-Star times infinity. Potential Southern League Triple Crown Winner. Forearms that pioneers tell stories about huddled over camp fires deep in the Northern woods. Look, 2015 Tyler O’Neill was pretty good: a slash line of .260/.316/.558 with 32 HRs. 32! It’s a wonderment Jack Z. didn’t promote him right then. But clearer heads must have prevailed, because along with those 32 HRs came a 30% K rate and a 6.5% walk rate. 2016 Tyler O’Neill, however, is a monster. I’m sure there are shrines set up in dingy motels across the Southern League at which offerings are made to a glossy 8x10 of Dipoto, begging him to call up Tyler O’Neill. He’s slashing .297/.379/.521, and by the time I finish typing this sentence he’ll probably be back to .300. His home runs have actually dropped, all the way down to 24, but he’s already collected 140 hits, 34 more than he did in 2015. On top of all this, he’s managed to cut his strikeouts down to just 25%, while almost doubling his walk rate to 11%. It’s silly to think that the hitting summit alone caused this meteoric rise, but having seen it firsthand, I can attest to the power of providing the just-right piece of information to a student who’s ready to soar. Although, I’m sure having the muscular definition of an Ansel Adams shot of Half Dome doesn’t hurt either.
D.J. is a grizzled vet of the Mariners’ farm system, although he didn’t crack AAA until this year (he had four games at AAA last year, but began this year at Jackson). D.J. hasn’t put together any particularly scintillating campaigns; last year he slashed just .223/.290/.346, although he maintained a respectable 8% BB and 23% K rate. This year at Jackson, D.J. raised his walk rate and lowered his strikeout rate slightly while lifting his slash line to .271/.340/.466. His numbers have regressed some at Tacoma, and he especially needs to get his strikeouts down at that level, but things seem to be trending in the right way for D.J.
Mike Zunino struck out 132 times in 2015. He struck out 158 times in 2014. Mike Zunino’s BB rate in 2015 was 5.4%. In 2014 it was 3.6%. In AAA this year, Zunino’s K-rate dropped from the 30s to 21%, while his walk rate rose to 10.7%. A hurried promotion to the bigs cost him some of that hard-won shine—the strikeouts are creeping back up towards 30%—but he’s actually increased his walk rate, to 12.2%. Mike Zunino may not be controlling the zone entirely yet, but he’s definitely issuing it some firm commands. Here’s to much more of this: