“Control what’s going on in the strike zone, both in the batter’s box and on the mound,” Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto said.
PEORIA, Ariz. — The thinking isn’t new. The principle has been subscribed to in some form since baseball’s infancy. Putting a catchphrase on it and doing a promotional video about that catchphrase and philosophy, well, that’s a little different.
It’s one of the many changes that general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais have implemented in their first season with the Mariners, pushing the organization-wide mantra: “Control the Zone” or “C the Z” for short.
It hasn’t been placed on T-shirts … yet.
“Clearly defining it is new,” Servais said. “It’s something that Jerry kind of brought with him when I was spending more time with him in Anaheim and tried to talk about it there. I was doing a similar thing at Texas. It didn’t have the catchphrase — Control the Zone or the cool C the Z. But we are taking the concept and tying it in with the terminology and running with it here.”
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In the simplest of terms, the mantra means: “Control what’s going on in the strike zone, both in the batter’s box and on the mound,” Dipoto said.
For a pitcher, it’s not just throwing strikes, but throwing quality strikes (particularly on the first two pitches), getting ahead of hitters and putting them away.
“Attack, attack is a big thing,” Servais said. “We talked about it with our pitchers. … When you get hitters down 0-2 or 1-2, squash them, wipe them out, finish them instead of nibbling and trying to get them to do this or that and you are just around the zone. Then all of the sudden you look up, it’s 3-2 and now it sways back to the hitter’s favor a little bit.”
As a hitter, the goal is to force pitchers to do the opposite by swinging only at hittable strikes, working deep counts and not giving in with two strikes.
“It’s get a good pitch,” Servais said. “It’s not walking. … Would we like a few more walks? Absolutely. But it just becomes a byproduct of doing things the right way throughout an at-bat. Working yourself into good counts, and when you get a good pitch let it rip.”
One pitch can be the difference. If a hitter has a 1-1 count, the next pitch is huge. In 2015, MLB hitters batted .332 with an .876 OPS on 2-1 pitches. Change it to a 1-2 pitch, and hitters batted .169 with a .429 OPS. In counts when the hitter was ahead, it produced a .295 batting average with a .964 OPS. In counts where the pitcher was ahead, it yielded a .209 batting average and .531 OPS.
Dipoto has spent hours combing through spread sheets and studying data to analyze what he was seeing in games. One of his simplest measures for finding efficiency is these numbers: hitters’ walks (positive value), hitters’ strikeouts (negative value), pitchers’ walks (negative value), pitchers’ strikeouts (positive value).
In a productive year, the tally should yield a positive number. A year ago, Mariners hitters drew 478 walks and struck out 1,336 times, and the pitchers issued 491 walks and struck out 1,283 batters. Following the equation, the team scored minus-66 on controlling the zone.
In the Mariners’ 39 years of existence, Servais said only once did a team with a winning record have a negative number following this equation — the 2009 team that posted a minus-163 and finished 85-77. That team also had a minus-52 run differential.
Of the 10 teams that made the playoffs last season, all but two — the Astros (minus-49) and Rangers (minus-143) — had positive numbers.
“It’s something that I’ve always believed in,” Dipoto said.
With full control of the Mariners, Dipoto and Servais are vocal now.
It wasn’t a tough sell to hitting coach Edgar Martinez, who had the same beliefs as a player.
“Look at the averages in Major League Baseball; there is a big gap being down in the count and being ahead,” he said.
Dipoto spent the offseason acquiring players that fit his philosophy.
“We targeted players in the offseason, most of whom really control what’s going on in the strike zone both in the batter’s box and on the mound,” he said. “The idea is to limit the number of walks you issue to grind out as many long at-bats as you can.”
It’s a departure in thinking from previous general manager Jack Zduriencik, who leaned toward power numbers at the end.
“If you had the exact same team we had here last year and threw it at them, we would not get the same results,” Servais said. “Our personnel is different.”
The players seem receptive.
“It makes sense,” third baseman Kyle Seager said. “Everything they’re saying makes sense. You look at the ballpark and everything — the plan seems smart. (Safeco Field) is a big ballpark. It’s hard to kind of rely on the home runs.”
Dipoto felt the Mariners’ player-development system wasn’t functioning properly on many levels.
“The idea is to take players with a skill set, put them in a player-development system that’s teaching them something consistent that has value at the big-league level and to remain steady with what you’re giving them,” Dipoto said. “Don’t switch the program on them. This works. The best offenses of all time, the best offenses of this generation or any generation do this. This is how offense works, and this is how pitching works.”