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The count that’s been killing the Mariners

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It’s not Chocula. SUPPOSEDLY.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Seattle Mariners Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Mariners are a team centered around contact. The hitters Seattle acquired this offseason - Ryon Healy and Dee Gordon - are two of the most contact-dependent hitters in baseball, and two of the most walk-averse. That tendency to be aggressive has been the Mariners’ MO across the board, and Seattle is correspondingly last in MLB in BB% at 6.8% - well below the league-average rate of 8.5%.

And yet, the Mariners aren’t a bad offense.

Despite how it’s felt to watch them over much of the past month, Seattle came into last night’s showdown with the Oakland A’s boasting a 102 non-pitcher wRC+ (referred to from here on out as wRC+ for ease of discussion/AL+NL comparison), good for an appropriately average 14th in MLB. Seattle has turned contact into runs all season long, and it’s been an intentional effort by Jerry Dipoto and his front office:

“We wanted to push the envelope and play more that old National League style, where we moved the ball and we could run and get on base and effectively set up our sluggers in the middle of our lineup. It’s been fun to watch because it is a little different than what the norm has become. We don’t have a lot of guys who go up there and grind out walks, but we do have guys who go up there and hit. They put the ball in play and move it around the field. We’re generally a tougher team to shift against, and we really didn’t give up a lot of power to do that.”

That contact-focused mentality comes with its benefits. Seattle has hit well against high velocity pitching, and may owe some of their late-inning heroics to a team more well-equipped to handle bullpen flamethrowers. The Mariners aim to make an impact within the strike zone, and to their credit they are not a team exceedingly chasing bad pitches, ranking exactly average at 15th in MLB in swing rate outside the zone. But the counts in which Seattle has made their hay - and left hay on the hay table in the hay barn - have been telling:

Mariners’ wRC+ by count

Count PAs MLB Rank by wRC+ wRC+
Count PAs MLB Rank by wRC+ wRC+
Overall 4483 14 102
Thru 0-1 2227 9 78
Thru 1-1 1742 3 102
Thru 1-2 1233 3 57
Thru 2-2 1005 3 87
Thru 0-2 893 7 39
Thru 3-2 534 11 149
Thru 1-0 1788 20 125
Thru 2-0 647 30 148
Thru 3-0 204 18 254
Thru 2-1 906 9 136
Thru 3-1 360 27 192
Again, wRC+ = non-pitcher wRC+ Data from Fangraphs

Since his arrival, Jerry Dipoto’s front office has preached a mantra of “Control the Zone.” This year, it might more appropriately be titled “Defend the Zone.” While the Mariners, like most teams, struggle to produce in two-strike counts, they are one of the league’s most-successful offenses with their backs against the wall. When the Mariners start off behind in the count or reach two strikes, they are a borderline elite team compared to the rest of the league.

Unfortunately, the pendulum swings both ways. When Seattle gets ahead in the count, they are far less deadly than their contemporaries. That includes a staggering 30th - last in all of baseball - ranking offensively when a plate appearance begins 2-0. In the third-most hitter-friendly count imaginable, the Mariners are losing control. Seattle’s allergies to walks wouldn’t be as damaging if they were punishing pitchers when they did fall behind, but either by bad process or bad fortune they’ve done little to step on the throat of struggling opponents, letting them back into more favorable counts more often than

Performance in 2-0 counts specifically (not just counts that begin 2-0) are also worst in baseball. as Seattle ranks 30th in 2-0 wOBA. Their .311 rate is below-average in any circumstance, much less when a hitter has the pitcher back-pedaling. Instead, they are over 100(!) points below-average in 2-0 counts, and below-average relative to the league by a significant margin in all “hitter’s counts” save for 2-1.

As is evident above, the Mariners are still performing better in “hitter’s counts” than when behind, but the separation is not as dramatic as the team would desire. Seattle should still be working towards those counts, but something may need tweaking in their approach when they get ahead. Some hitters, like Mitch Haniger and Mike Zunino, have historically changed their approach when ahead - selling out for a full power swing. That has proven, thus far, unsuccessful. Its been great to see Seattle defend themselves with their backs against the wall in two-strike counts. Now, they need to learn to attack.