Yesterday I got curious about the Mariners. That’s a good way to be, given my position on this site, but this was a more targeted type of interest. 12 Mariners have accrued at least 100 PAs this season. All 12 remain part of the organization, and, save for recent demotion Guillermo Heredia, the rest are members of the active roster. Just three of those hitters are running a K% higher than the league-average rate – 22.1%. When I quizzed a few of my fellow writers on this cheery bit of trivia, Mike Zunino and Andrew Romine were quickly identified, but the presumptive third culprit - Ryon Healy - doesn’t fit the bill.
It’s a small distinction, as Healy is effectively league-average with his 21.8% K%, but the fact that he’s drastically underperformed compared to the actual third answer, Mitch Haniger, highlights the long-understood limitation of Healy’s game. The 26-year-old 1B runs slowly, walks rarely, and hits the ball hard. That can work for a hitter, as we’ve seen from José Abreu and Yulieski Gurriel (in 2017, at least), but it’s a narrow needle to thread, and depends heavily on the fickle beast that is BABIP. This year that beast has eaten Healy alive.
A .263 BABIP is bad. Out of 153 qualified hitters, Healy is 134th in BABIP, exacerbated by the fact that 68% of his plate appearances end in contact of some sort. Earlier this season, Tim Cantu wrote for us about the chasmic gap between Healy’s wOBA and xwOBA, a discrepancy that remains significant today. Unfortunately, barring an exclusively day-time deployment, the Mariners don’t have the time to hope for Healy to improve.
In terms of video analysis, I have far more to offer on pitching than hitting. But it doesn’t take a decade to identify that Ryon’s swing is not optimized. A hitter of his limited speed and nearly limitless strength is wasting their talents with a 44.7% groundball rate that is in the upper-third of the league in frequency. The image of Healy’s season should be his jubilant electoral victory as the Mayor of Dongtown, but instead it’s one of him grounding out to the shortstop.
Overhauling a swing is a process that takes commitment, intelligence, and, most of all, time. Thankfully, it’s all something Ryon has done before. When Healy first entered the minors, he was running extremely high grounder rates. His teammates, including current Athletics 1B Matt Olson, directed him to lower his hands and incorporate a slight uppercut. In a brilliant 2016 piece from Eno Sarris, Healy explains how his swing used to be a downward, grounder-focused stroke:
“I had a steep swing before,” Healy told me last month. “I would start high and then load even higher, and then drive down steep to the ball.” ... “I lowered my hand slot so I could load to a lower, more powerful position,” the Athletics’ outfielder [sic] said of that adjustment. “Then my bat was flatter earlier and through the zone longer.”
Within those quotes it’s evident why Seattle felt there was more potential yet to come for Healy and why he’s been given a longer leash than might be expected.
Unfortunately, it’s past time for Seattle to give Healy a chance to rediscover his swing in a lower-pressure environment - Tacoma. It’s far unprecedented, particularly with this front office. Just a week ago Seattle sent down struggling LHP James Pazos to focus on his mechanics. In years past, Seattle has held back Mike Zunino to reset his mechanics with revolutionary short-term results, not to mention the initial demotion of James Paxton in favor of Nate Karns in 2016 that allowed Pax the time to refine his mechanics into that of a true ace.
So too, they should treat Healy, who could benefit from even the 12 remaining games Tacoma has to attempt to reset himself before September. With Robinson Canó present, there’s no imminent need for a replacement, but there’s little more Daniel Vogelbach can do to prove he deserves a chance to start five consecutive MLB games for the first time in his career. Vogey’s traditional stats are naturally inflated by the PCL’s friendly environs, and the lack of much prospect pedigree on his teammates make his BB% slightly suspect considering few teams need pitch aggressively to him. It’s also fair to lament that Seattle is attempting to make a playoff run with a choice between two potential AAAA players.
But Vogelbach has earned the call-up as much as Healy needs the reset. Both players grade highly in “raw power” but struggled for much of their careers to translate that pop onto the field. This year, beginning with a since-deleted clip of a more uppercut swing on Instagram in the winter, Vogey has delivered a batted ball profile befitting of his basso profundo bat. After years of groundball rates much like Healy’s, in 2018 Vogey has finally Min/Maxed his hacks, with a 7% jump in his fly ball rate drawn directly from a 7% DROP in his groundball rate.
Vogey’s defense is wretched and he may never be able to make the jump from AAA to the bigs, but with just 123 sporadic PAs over three seasons, we don’t know anything for sure, other than that AAA cannot handle him and his 156 wRC+. What we DO know is Healy isn’t able to do enough right now, and hoping for him to fix things on the fly is a risk Seattle can’t afford to keep taking, especially when Vogelbach at least offers a possibility of something more. By the first week of September both players will be in Seattle regardless, but Healy is running out of time to get right this year, and so are the Mariners. It’s been time to make a change for weeks now, but late is better than never, and Seattle can’t wait any longer.