Table Setter: What happened to the Mariners’ C the Z philosophy?
Well, things could have gone better in Oakland. In fact, they really should have for the Mariners.
Seattle won two of the four games against the team they are chasing in the American League Wild Card race, and there were opportunities in the other two. On Friday, the Mariners promptly fell behind 5-0 in the first inning, only to barrage their way into a 5-5 tie with three homers in the fourth. And on Sunday, they put a run on the board out of the gate while Félix Hernández rolled through four scoreless innings.
And yet they lost each of those games for the same reason – the offense stopped scoring.
It’s an all-too-familiar theme for these Jekyll and Hyde Mariners, a team that has struggled in the second half to resemble the one that shook off Robinson Canó’s 80-game suspension during great months of May and June.
With the M’s back in Seattle to start a three-game set against the MLB-worst Baltimore Orioles and entering the week 5 1/2 games back of a playoff spot, here are three things to keep in mind.
What happened to C the Z?
The 2018 Mariners were never built to see a ton of pitches and wear out starting pitchers. It was more about see ball-hit ball, preferably hard and somewhere out of reach of opposing fielders. That’s all fine and good if it works, but, well, it’s not. And it hasn’t for a while.
For every Mitch Haniger and Nelson Cruz, the Mariners have a Jean Segura and Dee Gordon in the lineup. That is to say that they have a few guys who will take a walk, but they also have some who are way more reliant on putting the ball in play to get on base.
Christopher Crawford of Rotoworld (one of the best people to follow on Twitter if you like baseball) pointed out on Sunday that the Mariners had four players in Sunday’s lineup with on-base percentages below .300 – Mike Zunino (.251), Kyle Seager (.267), Ryon Healy (.283) and Gordon (.295). That quartet is part of Seattle’s everyday lineup, too, and I don’t think I have to tell you that postseason teams typically don’t have that many players getting on base that infrequently.
When you have a good number of free swingers like that, you can run into a big inning here and there when an opposing pitcher is catching too much of the strike zone. But going up against veteran pitchers who can expand the strike zone or those with particularly tantalizing off-speed stuff, you can end up with long stretches of scoreless baseball. And when you do that against teams like the Oakland A’s, that can be the difference.
C the Z refers to controlling the zone, and it’s an organization-wide philosophy for the Mariners, the goal being to come away with as many productive at-bats as possible as a hitter. That could come with a hit, a walk, moving over a runner – anything that’s productive. It would be pretty disappointing if something the organization preaches at all levels ends up being what keeps the big league team out of the postseason in a year the playoffs seemed almost like a certainty just a few short months ago.
September is here, which means reinforcements
The Mariners made their first round of September call-ups when the calendar turned on Saturday, adding six players in addition to activating James Paxton from the disabled list.
The main focus was to get a few extra arms in the bullpen, with lefty James Pazos and righties Justin Grimm, Ryan Cook and Chasen Bradford coming up from Triple-A Tacoma. The Mariners also added depth to the positional group with utility man Kristopher Negrón (a very recent acquisition from Arizona) and catcher David Freitas.
Those moves won’t be the last the M’s make with the full 40-man roster now at their disposal. The Rainiers finish their season on Monday, so Round 2 is expected for Tuesday, and there’s one very obvious candidate to end up back at Safeco Field at that point: first baseman Daniel Vogelbach.
The 6-foot, 250-pound Vogelbach has had yet another strong season with Tacoma, posting a .290/.434/.545 slash line with 20 home runs and 60 RBIs over just 84 games. He’s had a few opportunities with the M’s over the last three years, even making the squad out of spring training this year after an impressive March with the bat, but he’s never had a prolonged shot to adjust to MLB pitching.
At 25, Vogelbach has shown he does just fine in the minors and really needs a fair shake to show what he can do in the majors. And with the offense scuffling like it has been, it wouldn’t be the craziest idea to give Vogelbach some of Healy’s at-bats against right-handers down the stretch and see if any of his Triple-A magic translates in a positive way for Seattle.
Our Mariners insider at 710 ESPN Seattle, Shannon Drayer, had an interesting insight last week that is worth revisiting. As she explained during her daily hit during John Clayton’s show on Thursday, the return of Canó may have messed with Seattle’s chemistry in a way nobody was really expecting.
It all has to do with Canó playing not just his customary second base, but also moving around to first and third on occasion, meaning players like Healy, Gordon and Seager are having to pay closer attention than usual to the lineup manager Scott Servais puts together each day.
“I can’t help but wonder, are there too many moving parts right now?” Drayer said. “Is it too much for too many players to come in every day and look at the lineup and see, ‘Am I playing? Where am I playing?’ … Where (Canó) plays in the field and who he’s replacing and who doesn’t play for a day, I think that (makes an impact).”
Drayer thinks that could be playing a part in why the Mariners’ offense has had trouble with consistency since his return, and a fix could be deciding to put him in one spot and sticking with it. And yes, we know the lineup lacked consistency before Canó returned, but don’t you think having his presence back in the order should have helped in that respect?
Remember the four players with sub-.300 on-base percentages this season? Well, three of them happen to play the positions that Canó is being used at right now, and Gordon and Seager in particular had brutal months of August offensively. You would think they could use all the help they can get right now. Letting Canó give Seager a series or two off as an everyday player, or placing Canó at his natural position and in turn allowing Gordon to worry only about playing center field, both suggestions Drayer made, probably wouldn’t hurt considering this offense’s lack of production as of late.