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Series Preview # 42: D-backs vs Mariners

Control the Zone

Jerry Dipoto watches batting practice
Jerry Dipoto watches batting practice
Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

“Control the Zone” is the Mariner’s imperative. Sounds great, but how is it done?

Several internet articles left me bewildered instead of enlightened. Enlightenment can be half in the eye of the beholder and half in words. Let’s look at it from a batter’s perspective. When a batter grinds-out hits and walks, his control the zone can be inconsistent. To consistently control the zone, the batter does the following:

  • Don’t be in a hurry to swing – raise the pitch count and wait for your pitch.
  • Get on base to set-up good sluggers.
  • When fielders shift, “…put the ball in play and move it around the field” - without giving up a lot of power.
  • Don’t strike out! “The one thing we do know you can affect as a hitter is reducing the number of strikeouts. As long as you are able to control the zone in that way with two strikes and put the ball in play good things can happen.” -- Jerry Dipoto

Pitch count makes a difference in average pitch velocity.

John Trupin wrote The count that has been killing the Mariners, referring to Mariners batting with a count of 2-0. Why might 2 balls adversely impact a batter?

Let’s look at Statcast data from 10 starting pitchers: 5 Mariners Leake, Paxten, Gonzalez, Hernandez, and LeBlanc, and 5 D-backs Corbin, Greinke, Godley, Ray and Buchholz (Source: Baseball Savant website).

Average Pitch Velocity

Player 0 & 1 ball 2 balls 3 balls 0 & 1 strike 2 strikes
Player 0 & 1 ball 2 balls 3 balls 0 & 1 strike 2 strikes
Patrick Corbin 84.8 85.8 87.1 85.9 85.1
Zack Greinke 85.5 85.5 86.2 86.3 84.4
Zack Godley 85.4 86.1 87.9 86.9 84.8
Robbie Ray 88.2 90.4 91.9 89.9 89.2
ClayBuchholz 84.1 85.1 86.6 85 85
Mike Leake 85.3 86.4 87.9 86.4 85.8
James Paxton 90.9 93.3 94.8 92.7 92
Marco Gonzalez 85.1 86.5 88.3 86.4 85.9
Felix Hernandez 84.7 85.1 87 85.4 85.3
Wade Le Blanc 81.1 82.2 84.6 82.4 82
0 & 1 ball 2 balls 3 balls 0 & 1 strike 2 strikes
average 85.49 86.65 88.25 86.74 85.94
Data From Baseball Savant

The table shows that average pitch velocity increased by 1.2 mph when the count reached 2 balls, and increased an additional 1.6 mph at 3 balls. My conclusion: if the count reaches 2 balls, a fastball is more likely! Maybe that is why Mariner batters are hurt by a count of 2-0!

Another observation: The average pitch velocity decreased by 1 mph whenever the count reached 2 strikes. Amazingly, two strikes may be an opportunity, especially if all a batter wants to do it put the ball in play so good things can happen.

Pitch location impacts exit velocities.

Mike Petriello wrote that batters make stronger contact in the strike zone. Average batted-ball exit-velocities:

  • In strike zone: 91.0 mph (MLB 2015)
  • Out of zone: 83.2 mph (MLB 2015)

“That’s a pretty massive margin. Put another way, contact made in the zone makes every batter hit the ball like they’re Justin Upton, while outside the zone turns everyone into Kris Negron.” – Mike Petriello

Which team controls the zone better – Mariners or D-backs?

Jerry Dipoto proposed a metric he called zone differential. It is calculated by strikeouts earned by your pitchers minus strikeouts by your batters, plus walks earned by your batters minus walks given up by your pitchers.

Zone Differential

Teams Strikeouts earned by pitchers minus strikouts by batters Walks earned by batters minus walks allowed by pitchers Zone Differential
Teams Strikeouts earned by pitchers minus strikouts by batters Walks earned by batters minus walks allowed by pitchers Zone Differential
Mariners 1045 966 322 321 80
Diamondbacks 1125 1145 457 388 49
Data from Baseball Reference

This season through 23 August, the table shows the Mariners differential was higher (80 vs 49). The Mariners control the zone better than the D-backs.

On 14 August, Cano returned from his 80-game suspension. This season, can he make a positive difference?

Cano is not eligible to play in this season’s playoffs, so the question is, “Can Cano contribute to the Mariners reaching the playoffs?” Jerry Dipoto provided the first part of the answer.

  • Jerry Dipoto said, “We’ve got to find some way of getting everybody on track offensively.” My thought was putting a slugger, like Robinson Cano in the lineup, could increase the effectiveness of his teammates. My thought may be wrong because this season’s slugging percent has fallen: it was .800 on 1 April, .479 on 29 April, .441 on 13 May, and .421 on 19 August. On the other hand, his slugging percent improved to .447 by 23 August
  • Jerry Dipoto said Dee Gordon will stay at second base. My thought was possibly Robinson Cano would have a utility role that includes first, second, and DH. In his return, he has played 19 innings at first, 38 innings at second, 7 innings at third, and one game as DH.

The second part of the answer involves asking the question, “Is Cano back at 100%?”

  • Cano’s drug test found Furosemide. It is a diuretic that helps the body eliminate sodium and water. It is used to treat: heart disease, liver disease, kidney disease, and high blood pressure. If Cano had any of these problems, he may not be back at 100%.
  • Although Furosemide is banned, it does not automatically lead to suspension. Joel Sherman wrote, “When a positive is shown for a banned diuretic/masking agent such as Furosemide, the case goes to the Independent Program Administrator Thomas Martin. His investigation determined Cano was using the diuretic to mask PED use. Then MLB investigated and found the same.” If Cano had been using PEDs, he may not be back at 100%.
  • After his return, how well has Cano hit? In 37 plate appearances, he has 7 singles, 3 doubles, and one homerun. His stats (BA, OBP, SLG, and OPS) are not significantly different than they were in April/May. If the 37 plate appearances are typical, he may be back at 100%.

In summary, although the Mariners are 4 games out of a wild-card spot, Cano could make a difference in the Mariners reaching the playoffs.

The Mariners’ pitching.

When Cano returned, the Mariners changed from an 8-man bullpen to a 7-man bullpen. Manager Scott Servais said the Mariners’ rotation is not set for the road trip starting with the D-backs. Except for the first game, it is uncertain who will start against the D-backs:

  • On 14 August, lefty James Paxton’s left forearm was hit by a line drive. He could return for the D-backs series.
  • On 21 August, Mike Leake was scratched from his start against the Astros due to illness. He could return for the D-backs series.
  • Roenis Elias is a reliever. He made two spot starts (3.2 innings on July 24, and 3.0 innings on August 19). He could return for another spot start.

Who will pitch in this series?

Friday. Zack Godley (4.44 ERA, 9.5 SO/9, 4.1 BB/9) vs Erasmo Ramirez (5.49 ERA, 10.0 SO/9, 6.5 BB/9)

Zack Goldley controls the zone! In his last 5 games, his ratio of strikeouts to walks was 4.5. On 24 July, Sean Testerman wrote an excellent article showing that after Godley started throwing more curves, his stats improved. The following table shows continued excellence in the last 5 starts.

Improvement from throwing more curves

Zack Godley thru 6/9 6/10-7/23 7/24-8/23
Zack Godley thru 6/9 6/10-7/23 7/24-8/23
starts 12   8   5
ERA   5.12   3.97   3.69
K % 21.00 25.60 32.56
SwStr 10.50 13.80 12.90
BABIP 0.316 0.314 0.336
HR/9   1.38   0.40   0.00
Sean Testerman (data thru 7/23) & Brooks Baseball (data after 7/23)

Erasmo Ramirez pitched 2 games in April (allowed 7 homers and his ERA was 10.24), and he pitched 2 games in August (allowed zero homers and his ERA was 0.90). What changed? He increased his percentage of sinkers from 22% to 38%. He must have improved his sinker - no homers in August while 5 of his 7 homers in April were sinker pitches.

Saturday. Robbie Ray (4.91 ERA, 11.6 SO/9, 4.9 BB/9) vs To Be Announced

This season, Robbie Ray has less “control of the zone”, meaning that his ratio of strikeouts to walks has decreased from 3.07 to 2.36. Last season, I thought Robbie Ray had reached greatness. This season I am not sure. Despite my uncertainty, I was excited by something amazing; Ray’s stats compare closely to a pitcher who is leading in the competition for the NL Cy Young award.

“One “Ray” of hope, (pun intended) is how uncanny the comparison [of Ray] is to Max [Scherzer] through the same age 26. Look through each of the different stat lines at THIS LINK . It’s stunning how similar the numbers line up...” — Jack Sommers

Sunday. Zack Greinke (3.06 ERA, 9.2 SO/9, 1.8 BB/9) vs To Be Announced

Zack Greinke controls the zone! This season, his ratio of strikeouts to walks is 5.16. He remains in contention for the NL Cy Young award. Through 21 August, the ESPN predictor ranked Greinke #4. Others in the top 6 are Max Scherzer, Aaron Nola, Miles Mikolas, Patrick Corbin, and Jacob deGrom. As many fans expected, Greinke is pitching very well!