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Mariners teach, learn a new philosophy at hitting summit

Chris Taylor said the Mariners staff is stressing the importance of a high walk-to-strikeout ration. (AP)

Somewhat lost last week, or perhaps just postponed because of the well-earned week of Griffey, was an interesting piece of news Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto revealed on The Hot Stove. The organization held a hitting summit in Peoria the first week of January, and according to Dipoto, everyone who is involved in the Mariners’ hitting programs at every level was brought there for series of meetings where the organization’s offensive philosophy- and how they would teach it – was laid out.

“We went through our philosophy, what we believe in as an offensive group and on our direction,” Dipoto said.

“C the Z,” for controlling that (strike) zone, was introduced to the public shortly after Christmas with a short video that was released on social media. Dipoto went into more specifics of how it would be taught.

“Most will be taught through development,” he said. “The younger you can get with a player and give him a plan at the plate, the better off you are going to be. You don’t hit very effectively in the big leagues without a plan. We’re trying to instill that in our players, particularly our young players. It’s something we are going to demand from them. We want to see them control that line of scrimmage and create advantage for us.”

The work with some of the younger players has already begun. The Mariners brought 16 hitters – including Mike Zunino, Chris Taylor, Jesus Montero, Boog Powell, D.J. Peterson and Alex Jackson – to Arizona to participate in the hitting summit.

“We had a group of guys down there we are excited to get our hands on in January and give them things they can work on for the next month or so before they report to Peoria,” said Dipoto. “They came in and spent a week going through a tutorial session, essentially learning from ground up. We assume nothing. We’re starting from the simple basics of mechanics and going through a game plan for each hitter to take into this season.”

The group spent five days splitting their time between meetings and intensive drills in the batting cages. For Taylor, it was an exciting opportunity to get a head start on what could be a very different spring training for the Mariners.

“I thought it was really good,” he said. “It was good to get the chance to work with the new staff, just get a feel for their philosophy and mentality. It was really good getting in the cage and hitting with them and trying out the new drills. I thought we had some really productive meetings. There is just a very clear message. It’s good to be on the same page heading into spring training.”

For Taylor, most of the drills and some of the terminology were familiar. “C the Z” was not new, but some of the teaching of it was.

“They got into a little more of the specifics,” he said. “Things we need to get better at as an organization. Our walk-to-strikeout ratio was one of the numbers. They pulled up every player that was there and this is the stat that they have that they have found the good Major League players have a good BB/K ratio. It’s something we all needed to improve on. The drills we worked on, some of that stuff was to help improve that going into the season.”

Many have asked how these new philosophies could benefit players at the big league level. While improvement in controlling the zone and BB/K ratio will be am emphasis for all players, Dipoto will not be asking for big changes from his veterans. Most of those who are still here or were brought into the organization by Dipoto already display the hitting traits he would like to see throughout the organization.

“Once you have reached a certain point in your career you kind of are what you are,” Dipoto pointed out. “You might be able to get subtly better in some areas but you are not likely to see a dynamic shift in the way guys play.

“In the here and now we are taking a group and building around it. These are already things that Kyle Seager is good at, that Robinson Cano is good at. That Nori Aoki, Chris Iannetta and Adam Lind are good at. Seth Smith does these things. It’s definitely something we used as a focal point while we were trying to build our offensive club. You can go out there and grind out at-bats and lengthen the lineup. Even though some of the names in there might not be marquee, star-quality players, you can drive run scoring by controlling the strike zone and grinding at-bats, especially when you have guys like Nelson Cruz, Seager and Robinson Cano cleaning it all up. What we are trying to do is go out there and find guys who are good at it today, set up a group of players and teach them who can then come in and do it well tomorrow.”

Dipoto said he was excited for the hitting group to get their hands on a number of those tomorrows.

“It is essentially trying to lay a foundation,” he said. “Alex Jackson just turned 20. Tyler O’Neill is in his 21-year-old season. D.J. Peterson is still just 23 years old. We still have some time to lay a foundation that they can build a career on. Some of them have done things very well over time, for instance. Tyler O’Neill has shown the ability to hit for power -that’s uncommon. He’s athletic and he can hit the ball over the fence. D.J. Peterson is one year removed from a dynamic season in the Cal League. Obviously he struggled this past year and our goal is to get him back on track. As near as I can tell through years of watching the game, the easiest way to get guys back on track is to refocus the strike zone.

“If the players get to the big leagues with these beliefs and they know it matters, you can really make a difference in the long term with an organization. If you can’t articulate it, the players aren’t going to buy in. It’s that simple. These are not difficult things to understand. We are going to hang it on the wall every day -take each count from a 0-0 count to a 3-2 count, this is what happens in the big leagues on this count. And it will be up to date every day. Our goal is going to be teaching these guys into getting themselves into a position to go do damage, then go do damage.”

For Taylor, the message was received. He had a number of eye-openers in the five-day hitting intensive.

“The meetings we had where we got to hear Scott Servais, Andy McKay speak, all the new staff, they really had a couple of things that they brought into the meetings that I hadn’t heard in the past,” he said. “One of the things that really hit home with me was understanding what type of hitter you were and not trying to do too much. Andy McKay talked about there are three types of hitters. There’s a contact hitter, a gap-to-gap hitter and a power hitter. There’s a lot of times in the game where we can forget what type of hitter we are, if we are a contact hitter we can convince ourselves we are a gap-to-gap hitter depending on the count and situation of the game, and that’s where we get into trouble and get ourselves out.”

What struck me in talking with Taylor and Dipoto is that both focused on hitting at the big league level. It’s one thing to put up numbers in the minor leagues, but what the Mariners are looking for as an organization is what will make a hitter successful in the big leagues against big league pitching. According to Taylor, that was the focus of the cage drills.

“It was a set routine in the cage every day,” he said. “A hitting maintenance program. Each drill had a set purpose for what they are looking for in our swing and things we need to improve on to be successful at the major league level.”

Taylor will have a shot at playing at the big league level sooner rather than later. Dipoto has said that he will compete with Luis Sardinas and Shawn O’Malley for one of the final spots on the roster. Taylor looks forward to playing for new manager Servais.

“It was really cool to meet the new big league manager,” he said. “He seemed like a very confident guy. He’s definitely got a lot of presence. He spoke in some meetings and it seemed like he really motivated all the players that were in there and all of the staff. I left the room with a fire, he put a little chip on my shoulder heading into spring training.”

By all accounts the hitting summit was a success. A plan was communicated and intense work was put in by younger players. Taylor is grateful for the opportunity to get a head start and believes a solid organizational hitting philosophy can benefit all.

“That’s big, especially for the guys that are at different levels throughout the season which is probably most players,” he said. “Last year I was up and down between Triple-A and Major Leagues a couple of times and you want to have that consistent philosophy between all of the hitting coaches, no matter what level you are at.”