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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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June 12, 2008 5:17 AM

Scoring runners

Posted by Geoff Baker

Good morning all. Getting set to take off from Toronto and head back to Seattle. Just thought I'd touch on a subject that was mentioned briefly during yesterday's game blog. For some reason, likely linked to the terrible internet hookup at the Rogers Centre (run by a communications company, no less), the few lines I did devote to it yesterday inadvertently got erased from the post as the game wore on.

We're talking, of course, about Adrian Beltre's numbers with runners in scoring position. This is not meant to pick on Beltre, as he's one of several culprits on the team in this category. We'll look at the team stats in a bit. It's been suggested a few times on this blog's comment threads, mostly by reader Brian L., that Beltre is the victim of "bad luck" in this regard. This is because Beltre has managed to maintain a high line drive percentage while his batting average on balls in play remains very low.

As I mentioned yesterday, I do believe Brian L. is partly right about the luck thing. I do think Beltre was having a run of bad luck early in the season. And I believe it -- and the M's offensive struggles -- caused him, and many others, to press when they stepped to the plate with runners in scoring position and a chance to do something big.

The overall numbers show a rapid decline in Beltre's hitting -- for average and power -- as the season progressed. His on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) dropped from .928 in April, to .624 in May, down to .379 in June. So, his hitting has declined overall. But there is still a big discrepancy between his .721 OPS overall and his .578 number with RISP. As a batting average, it's .222 versus .143.

That's a big discrepancy. Part of it, as I mentioned, can be attributed to luck. But those of us who keep watching Beltre's at-bats on a regular basis have noticed he tends to look much tighter with RISP. He seems to swing at more balls out of the zone. Even when he makes contact, the pitches don't seem as hittable and result in outs more often than not.

I decided to look at Beltre's strikeout rate (per at-bat) with RISP and found he whiffs 28.6 percent of the time in such situations. With nobody on, he fans 15 percent of the time. Now, admittedly, the sample sizes are small. But I'm not going to dismiss the discussion based merely on that. This team has fallen off a cliff and there is a reason for it. If the sample sizes are big enough to conclude "bad luck" is one factor hurting Beltre, then they are big enough to look at other factors.

And the samples aren't that small. We're approaching the halfway point of the season.

For me, a strikeout rate that doubles with RISP is an indicator that Beltre is pressing in such situations. Throw in that, and some bad luck with his line drives -- not all of which have been scorchers, mind you -- and you've got the recipe for disaster in the heart of the order. Yes, he's hit a lot of home runs. It's the other times he comes up that I'm worried about.

Now, about the team....


Overall, the M's are hitting .247 with a .680 OPS. With runners in scoring position, they are at .224 with a .692 OPS. In other words, quite similar totals for both, although a 23-point gap in batting average can still lead to a lot fewer runs scored and hurt the team in close games.

But generally, the numbers are fairly close and that is what you'd expect. Individual and team numbers with RISP tend to mirror normal totals. That's what sparks the entire debate about "clutch" hitting and whether it actually exists. We'll leave that for another day.

As for this topic, on the surface, the M's appear to have no major RISP problem. But in reality, there has been a big problem and it has to do with the guys getting the most opportunities to drive in runs. Simply put, the guys doing the hitting with RISP have not been the ones getting the most opportunities to do it. Several of them, like Beltre and Richie Sexson, have hit far worse with RISP than they are hitting the rest of the time.

Others are hitting better with RISP than they normally hit. Much better.

Kenji Johjima has an .887 OPS with RISP to lead the team. Wladimir Balentien is at .861, Jose Vidro at .787 and Yuniesky Betancourt is at .733.

Raul Ibanez is also at .787, one of the only regular middle of the order hitters who has produced something similar to his regular numbers. So, his spot in the middle of the order hasn't hurt the team as much as some others have.

But for a long while -- too long for this team's chances in 2008 -- the guys overperforming with RISP weren't getting as many chances as the guys seriously underperforming in those situations.

Johjima, Balentien and Betancourt are all hitting well back in the order. Between them, they've had only 106 ABs with RISP. Richie Sexson and Beltre combined have had 108 ABs. They had been, at least through mid-May, getting the lion's share of opportunities -- and were not getting the job done. Sexson has since been shuffled further back in the order.

Ibanez had struggled through mid-May in this category, but has picked it up. Jose Lopez, for all the good he's done, is still only a .675 OPS guy with RISP -- though he's also picked it up overall since May began. As a consequence, he's seen time in the middle of the order in hopes he can drive in runs. Others who have underperformed, like Sexson, have been bumped back.

Jose Vidro was getting few RBI opportunities early in the season, but was moved higher in the order to increase his ABs with RISP and take advantage of his uncanny (some might say flukey) ability to drive in runs while doing little else offensively the first six weeks of the season.

Not all of it is working out. But the shuffling that's taken place in the lineup since early May, at least, from the team's explanation, is all about this. It's why Lopez was batting fifth yesterday. He's been hitting for more power lately and the team needs power with RISP.

So far, as even as some of the numbers have been overall, things have yet to balance out for this team. And that's a big reason the runs just haven't been there day after day. Got to run. My plane is leaving.

ADDITIONAL NOTE (8:20 a.m.): To Jakob in the comments thread, as I've written in the post, numbers with RISP tend to mirror regular numbers, so no, nobody is writing that players have different abilities to hit with RISP. If you're a good hitter, you're supposed to hit well with RISP.

But several M's players have hit below their expected levels -- given their regular batting averages and OPS numbers overall -- while others have outdone them. Yes, you are right in concluding that what's been happening is the team taking the hotter bats and moving them higher up in the order, while pushing the underachievers further back. I'd even counter your argument and say that not playing the "hot hand'' and moving the lineup around sooner helped scuttle the M's season. If you'll remember, the team stuck by Beltre, Sexson and Ibanez in the middle of the order through until mid-May hoping that their stats with RISP would even out.

They are still waiting, in the cases of Beltre and Sexson. A team can't afford to wait all year to prove theories according to sample size. Even if all the numbers even out by September and everyone's RISP numbers more or less match their regular ones, what good will that do now? The season is over.

Jose Vidro hasn't exactly been "hot" all year, but for whatever reason, he'd been getting the runners home when given a shot. As such, he's been put higher in the order.

I'll make it simple:

The three guys with the biggest discrepancy between their regular numbers and those with RISP (in terms of OPS and of RISP numbers being worse) are:

Sexson
Beltre
Ichiro

Between them, they've had 155 ABs with RISP.


Now, take three guys overperforming their regular numbers:

Johjima
Balentien
Betancourt

And you've got only 103 such RISP ABs between them.

That's 52 fewer ABs. Roughly 33 percent fewer. It's huge.

Problem is, you can't move those guys too high up in the order for a variety of reasons. For instance, Betancourt can't get on-base, so putting him too high up is a risk.

But in some cases, where guys could be shuffled around, it's been done. Vidro has received more and more ABs with RISP as the season wears on. That should, in theory, have helped balance out the gap between the team's regular numbers and those with RISP. A perfect solution? No. He doesn't hit well enough overall to be that high up. But with so many others underproducing their regular numbers, somebody has to drive the runs home.

You don't have to agree with all of it. I agree that some of it looks like a panic reaction.

However, there has been a RISP problem this year.

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