“Patience is a virtue,” the old saying goes, and that goes double for patience at the plate. If a batter draws more walks than he strikes out, his OBP goes up, the team has a better chance to score runs, and he’s praised for his excellent plate discipline. If a batter strikes out more than he walks, he’s riding the Miguel Sanó Express.
What’s worth noting here, is that the Mariners, despite pushing a philosophy of “Control the Zone” for the past couple years, have one of the lowest walk rates in MLB as of this writing, at a paltry 7.8% (and that’s an increase from their previous mark of 6-something). Their fellow cellar-dwellers are teams you don’t really want to be in the company of: the Rangers, the White Sox, the Royals, the Tigers...and the Red Sox?
Walks are objectively valued less than any other occurrence that leads to getting on base, but can the Mariners move forward through the season with such a low walk rate? It seems to be working out okay for the Red Sox, whose offensive numbers line up pretty closely with the Mariners:
Looking back at the previous four years’ AL division leaders, we soon see that garnering a high percentage of walks in April is not the truest indicator of season-long success. In fact, most division-leading teams each year had some of the lowest walk rates in April, and throughout the season.
Of the twelve division-leading teams in the AL the past four years, eight were ranked 9th or lower in walk percentage the first month of play. In fact, the 2015 Royals had the lowest April BB% in the American League (ranked 15th with 6.0%). They remained as the team with the lowest percentage of walks throughout the season and went on to secure a World Series title that same year.
It has been established that walks are important, but we cannot deem them non-essential. So we ask ourselves; why haven’t the Mariners been drawing walks?
First, it’s hard to take walks when pitchers insist on feeding you pitches in the zone. A week ago, the Mariners had received the second-most pitches thrown in the zone in the AL, second to the Twins’ 44.8%. But fast forward a week: the mashing Mariners are now seeing just the sixth-most pitches in the zone in the league, at 43.3%. Concurrently, their walk rate has risen from where it was a week ago, which is a good sign.
So if the secret to the Mariners’ success isn’t patience at the plate, what is it? Contact. Simple contact. The Mariners currently lead all of baseball in Z-Contact, at 88%. The Mariners have been so focused on contact, that they’ve been seeing fewer and fewer pitches this season.
The Mariners have the lowest Pitches per Plate Appearance in all of Major League Baseball. As a team, each plate appearance lasts, on average, only 3.7 pitches. Taking more pitches does not necessarily translate into success at the plate, so are Mariners who take fewer pitches more successful?
If we look at the amount of pitches the Mariners tend to take per plate appearance on average, the data seems to show that the Mariners who take the fewest amount of pitches are still creating runs at an above-average rate, as is everyone in the offense who isn’t a backup or Ben Gamel. What is even more interesting to note, is that there is a cutoff. Canó, Heredia, and Haniger all see an average amount of pitches (League Average is 3.92) and their performances have placed them in the upper echelon of wRC+ leaders, but once we look at players who take even more pitches on average than they do, the results change significantly.
It’s not surprising that a high P/PA rate correlates with a higher BB%, but it’s interesting that it also correlates with some of the highest strikeout rates on the team. Freitas, Gamel, Zunino, and Romine all have some of the lowest wRC+ totals on the season, and they all on average take at least four pitches when in the box. Those batters are also striking out at a higher rate than the rest of the team. Gamel is seeing slightly more pitches than he did last year (3.96, closer to league average), possibly because he is still trying to re-adjust to game speed, and his K-rate is slightly higher than his career average, but look for that to adjust over the coming weeks; he already looks better at the plate than he did to begin the season. Freitas and Romine are backups with significantly less playing time, and Freitas has shown a dogged ability to get on base (a .341 OBP from a backup catcher is just fine), but Romine’s 35% K-rate isn’t offset by his above-average walk rate. Likewise, although Zunino is seeing additional pitches per plate appearance, that’s not currently paying off in walks.
Despite the fact that most Mariners are seeing fewer pitches than average, they are still managing to make enough contact to get on base and score, at least when they take less than three pitches. The Mariners preach the importance of first-pitch strikes to their pitchers, but it seems like the philosophy of “winning the count” applies to batters as well. When making contact on the first pitch, Mariners batters are hitting an amazing .343/.351/.650/1.002, but they are only swinging at the first pitch 27% of the time. The other 73% of the time, they are making reasonable contact on the second pitch of the plate appearance. On 0-1 counts, they’re hitting .292/.316/.398/.714. On 1-0 counts, they improve those numbers by a significant amount, hitting .386/.386/.693/1.080.
But once they see more pitches, the numbers dwindle. On 0-2 counts, Mariners are hitting .127/.143/.206, which is expected, since is is considered the worst possible scenario as a batter. But even if pitchers fall behind and give up two balls for a 2-0 count, the “hitter’s count,” the Mariners’ numbers also drop significantly from a 1-0 count, hitting only .273/.273/.432, compared to .386/.386/.693.
If we are to draw any conclusions from this, it is that the Mariners have been making ends meet when they strive to make contact early, which allows their Z-Contact percentage to rise when pitchers pitch in the zone. But what happens when pitchers adjust and begin to throw fewer strikes?
Before the series against the Angels, the Mariners had the highest contact percentage in the league (79.5%). When it came to pitches specifically in the zone, the Mariners would make contact 88.9% of time, also the highest in the league. Their contact percentage on pitches outside of the zone was not as grandiose, making contact only 63% of the time (7th in the league).
But after the Angels series, the Mariner’s swing and miss rate increased. The amount of pitches they saw outside of the zone increased significantly as well, as did their swing and miss rate on pitches outside. Though they have the best contact rate for pitches in the zone, they are now ranked 12th in the league when it comes to making contact on pitches outside of the zone.
The Mariners are so accustomed to receiving pitches in the zone, that when opposing pitchers adjust and begin to throw more pitches outside of the zone, Mariners bats tend to cool down. Throughout April, 45.3% of pitches thrown landed somewhere outside of the zone for the Mariners. In the first week of May alone, that number rose to 49.6%, which correlates with the M’s swinging strike percentage rise from 9.3% in April to 13.3% in the first week of May. With the same parameters, the Mariners strikeout percentage rose from 19.2% in April to 22.3% in the first week of May.
As teams adjust and begin to more craftily attack Mariners batters, the Mariners need to adjust as well and learn to go deeper into counts. Though they’ve been making reasonable contact, once pitchers adjust the M’s will suffer by way of the strikeout, as they have been shown to do. The Red Sox may be having success with this approach at the plate, but the Red Sox are backed by a pitching staff that ranks in the top five in all of baseball, while the Mariners’ staff...is not. If the burden of the team’s success will rest mostly on the offense, as it has early in the season, the offense has to be nearly perfect to keep the team competitive. Keep hitting early, or do damage in counts later on; it doesn’t matter how they get there, as long as they do.