The second Mariners game I attended in 2017 was on April 11, the first meeting of a three-game tilt against the Astros. The Mariners lost, but my lasting impression from that outing was Taylor Motter means business.
He was starting in place of an injured Jean Segura and took full advantage of the opportunity, ripping three doubles down the left field line. He followed up his strong performance with a home run in two in the next three games. Motter would finish the month with five dingers, which helped support a .310 ISO and 116 wRC+. Jean Segura returned to action just before the start of May. At that point, it looked like the Mariners had legitimate weapon in Motter: a player who could play nearly any position and offer far more offensively than a night off for one of the starters.
Motter made his money destroying pitches on the inner half of the plate.
In April, 70% of his balls in play were fly balls or line drives. Additionally, he made hard contact on nearly half of his batted balls. Motter also had a tendency to pull the ball, hitting 68% of his batted balls to the left-most third of the field. Fortunately, that was a fruitful tendency, as Motter ran a 251 wRC+ on pulled balls in April. Combine his fly ball and line drive profile with the hard hit baseballs he was pulling down the left field line, and the result looks something like this:
The rest of his season was a different story. Motter failed to post a wRC+ above 60 in any of the following months. His hard contact rate dropped over 20% from April to May, failing to rise above 30% again until August. Meanwhile, his groundball rate inflated to 50% or higher from June through August. Pitchers made an adjustment to Motter, pitching him low and away.
Along with the negative effects it had on his batted ball profile, opponents’ new approach to Motter generated a few extra strikeouts along the way. He struck out in 23.6% of his plate appearances during the first half of the year. When he would chase pitches out of the zone low and away, he struggled to make contact. Moreover, with the Mariners struggling all over the field, Motter was ill-fittingly asked to play 1st base for a stretch, and suffered -0.4 fWAR in just 27 PAs there.
That said, Motter seems to have adjusted to the pitchers’ adjustment, lowering his strikeout rate to 15.7% over the second half of the season. Motter slashed his whiff rates across the board, with the most impactful difference coming on pitches low and away.
The slashed strikeout rate, however, was accompanied by a struggle to generate the power he enjoyed in the season’s opening month.
Looking at Motter’s first month compared to his second half of the season, you see two polar opposites. April Taylor Motter focused on capitalizing on pitches in his wheelhouse, pounding inside pitches for ample power. When pitchers adjusted, his production fell dramatically. Then he adjusted back, trying to eliminate the whiffs at the lower part of the zone; however, it dampened his power when the few opportunities to hit inside pitches presented themselves.
This puts Motter at a bit of a crossroads heading into 2017. We’ve seen that when he focuses on his power stroke - and gets the pitches he’s looking for - he can be a formidable force; however, when pitchers avoid his wheelhouse, he loses his bite. On the other hand, when he broadens his approach, looking to make contact with pitches in all areas of his zone, he sacrifices quality contact for fewer strikeouts. Offensively, Motter will need to choose between focusing power while forfeiting contact or prioritizing contact in exchange for pop.
As Anders outlined earlier this week, Romine likely has a slight defensive edge on Motter, but if Taylor can unlock some of the offensive promise he showed early last year, he’ll have far more upside than Romine or Gordon Beckham. Establishing the inner part of the plate as his wheelhouse is the first step. If he can prove himself capable of doing damage, pitchers will be less likely to pitch him in the zone. Even if they avoid his wheelhouse more, if he can refine his eye to leave pitches out and away. He can see an increase in his walk rate and use his plus base running to his advantage. Furthermore, John pointed out that Motter was one of the unluckiest hitters in baseball last year. A retooled approach with better luck on balls in play could spell a bounce back for the 28-year-old utility man.
May the warm weather of Arizona promptly heat the bat of Mr. Motter and position him for a strong second season with the Mariners.