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A new paradigm for the Mariners pitching staff

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Jerry Dipoto has assembled an unorthodox pitching staff.

MLB: Spring Training-Seattle Mariners at Chicago White Sox Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

[Ed. Note: This week, as part of a larger SB Nation season preview series, we will be focusing on “what’s changed?” for the 2017 Mariners. We’ll be examining each major aspect of the team—team culture, pitching, offense, defense, and the minors—throughout the week. Today we look at the pitching staff.]

“Steady” and “strong” are two words that are often used in conjunction. The Mariners’ pitching staffs during Jack Zduriencik’s tenure were steady, however they were not a strength. Dragged along by Félix Hernández in his prime, the M’s pitchers posted fWARs between 14.0 and 15.6 from 2011-2014. That was good enough to put them in the middle of the pack for the league each year. With some help from their position players, those pleasantly average pitching staffs might have been able to support a few runs at the playoffs. The other eight players on the field elected otherwise, however, and so half a decade of passable pitching was rendered pointless as far as playoffs were concerned. It may be redundant to highlight how Félix’s decline has shifted the power dynamic of the organization, but 2015 was the first season since 2009 that the guys manning bats and bases clearly outperformed the pitching staff.

For all the foibles of the previous regime, their ability to acquire and develop pitching talent appeared solid. Yes, the Big Three didn’t pan out like expected, but Doug Fister, Hisashi Iwakuma, Jason Vargas, Taijuan Walker, Carson Smith, David Aardsma, Chris Young, Brandon League, Edwin Díaz, Luiz Gohara, and Roenis Elias all were acquired or developed into useful players and/or pieces. Whether they were properly utilized is something else entirely, of course.

Having a pitching staff with a cohesive mentality is useful but not essential. If you have excellent pitchers they can succeed with grounders, fly-balls, strikeouts, whatever. The Mariners, whether intentionally or by chance, drew an above-average number of ground-balls from 2013-2015. Considering Safeco grants extra leeway to fly-ball pitchers, this could be seen as wasteful, but grounders are usually good, often outs, and never home runs. Now, with an aging Iwakuma, Félix in flux, an unproven ace in James Paxton, new faces in the back of the rotation, and a number of exciting but volatile names in the bullpen, Jerry Dipoto is hoping to be ahead of the curve in 2017.

Since being hired as the Mariners general manager in September of 2015, Dipoto has been hard at work remaking the roster to fit his vision. Not only has he completely re-imagined the organizational culture, he’s famously made 41 trades in an effort to turn the Mariners’ roster into a winner. A year and a half into his tenure, Dipoto’s vision is close to being actually realized. It’s a paradigm shift for the organization and keys in on a movement that’s sweeping baseball.

If you’ve been paying attention to the greater baseball blogosphere this offseason, you might have noticed a lot of chatter about fly balls. Much of the discussion has been focused on how batters are changing their mechanics to hit more balls in the air. Bucking traditional wisdom has become much easier with the success of players like J.D. Martinez, Justin Turner, and Josh Donaldson so widely publicized. And with the deluge of information flowing into the game via Statcast, teams with a strong analytical bent are buying into the revolution as well.

The Mariners might be one of the few teams going the opposite direction. Dipoto has gone out and filled the Mariners’ pitching staff with pitchers with fly ball tendencies, seemingly playing directly into this new trend sweeping baseball. While it may seem counterintuitive, it's looking more and more like a stroke of genius.

At the SABR Analytics Conference a few weeks ago, he directly addressed this new paradigm:

“We have a pretty fly-ball-centric pitching staff. That’s our pitching staff, so how do we maximize the value of a fly-ball pitching staff, and an environment that should be beneficial to a fly-ball pitcher with an outfield… We wanted to create a new paradigm for our club that was more built on defense and the ability to go run it down.”

I used that very same quote when discussing how to align an outfield with three center fielders in it but it has so many implications for the pitching staff too. Out of the 15 pitchers on the 40-man roster acquired by Dipoto, two-thirds of them generate an above average fly ball rate. This didn’t happen overnight either. The Mariners pitching staff generated the sixth highest fly ball rate in the majors last season, a huge difference from their 19th place mark in 2015. But the outfield defense was the one piece that was missing last year. Now with Jarrod Dyson and Mitch Haniger flanking Leonys Martin, Jerry Dipoto’s grand experiment is on the precipice of realization.

Drew Smyly is the perfect example of the type of pitcher Dipoto has been targeting. His extreme fly ball rate isn’t simply a product of the location of his pitches. He throws a rising fastball. When talking about pitch movement, everything is relative to a theoretical spin-less pitch. The amount of backspin Smyly generates with his fastball is such that it appears to “rise” when compared to that benchmark. In fact, Smyly generated the 12th highest vertical movement on his fastball among all 500 pitchers who threw at least 100 fastballs last season.

That same vertical movement leaderboard is peppered with Mariners. Evan Scribner, Yovani Gallardo, Ariel Miranda, and Chase DeJong all appear in the top 100. Eight of the fifteen pitchers on the 40-man roster acquired by Dipoto possess a fastball with above average “rise” to their four-seam fastball. All of them are generating fly ball rates much higher than league average.

To take advantage of the natural movement of the pitch, the ideal location for a rising fastball is up in the zone. If executed properly, this usually results in lazy pop flies or swings and misses. But conventional wisdom might caution against the use of so many elevated fastballs for fear of allowing too many home runs. This concern is reduced somewhat by the environment the Mariners play in but it’s allayed even further by the hitting adjustments I mentioned above. As Jeff Sullivan revealed in this FanGraphs article, many of the swing changes players are making are in an effort to combat the low, sinking fastball. These adjustments have led to an increase in home runs hit from the lower and middle thirds of the strike zone. But the number of home runs hit from the upper third have actually diminished slightly.

Even pitchers without a rising fastball are being coached to elevate their fastball this spring. Felix Hernandez, the one constant through the last decade of Mariner teams, is changing the way he throws his fastball. In an effort to get back to being King Felix, he committed himself to a rigorous offseason training regimen and has been working on changing his approach to batters. There is so much more to Felix’s transformation in this excellent article from Ryan Divish, but I want to key in on one quote from Jerry Dipoto:

“[Felix] pigeon-holed himself to one spot of the strike zone much more than he ever has. He didn’t throw in very often. He didn’t elevate very often. He stayed mostly in the same zone all year long. And if you do the same thing to major league hitters, over and over, they will sniff you out.”

Even Hisashi Iwakuma is changing the way he pitches. His splitter is the perfect weapon to generate whiffs and ground balls but his changing repertoire led to a much more balanced batted ball profile in 2016. It was the first season in his career he ran a below average ground ball rate and an above average fly ball rate.

When Major League Baseball zigs, Jerry Dipoto zags. He’s assembled a pitching staff that seems poised to take advantage of changing trends throughout baseball. It may seem prescient, but it’s likely a result of meticulous research and thorough scouting throughout the organization. The Mariners pitching staff is just one piece of a team-wide tapestry; maximizing their environment, benefiting from the vastly improved outfield defense, and staying a step ahead of the rest of Major League Baseball.