I’m not a native of Seattle and I only moved to Washington in early 2009. So, the most vivid highs and lows in the history of the Seattle Mariners aren’t embedded into my psyche like they are for so many Pacific Northwesters. The team’s trade of Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez’s departure via free agency, and the infamous late inning melt downs of Bobby Ayala don’t make my blood boil just like the Mariners’ historic 116-win season isn’t the first thing that I recall about the 2001 baseball season. Perhaps, that’s why I was indifferent to the June hiring of former Mariner great Edgar Martinez to be the club’s hitting coach.
Don’t get me wrong, I think that Edgar should already be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Moreover, my wife is a life-long Mariners fan and she’s thoroughly briefed me on his importance to the franchise and its fan base. Even if I wasn’t married to a die-hard Mariners and Edgar fan, it’s not hard to figure out what he means to the local community.
Considering that the 52-year-old has a Safeco Field cafe named after him and there’s a street outside the stadium bearing his name, it’s pretty clear that Edgar is a Seattle fixture. Regardless of his stature with fans, his Hall of Fame worthiness, and my bride’s passion for “Gar,” I’ve remained ambivalent to the hiring.
There’s no disputing that Seattle hitters performed much better after the all-star break, which commenced shortly after Edgar’s hiring on June 20. The club had more hits, slugged more home runs, and walked more often despite having fewer at-bats in the second half. Plus, they had significantly better triple-slash numbers. That’s why it’s understandable if a casual observer linked the team’s resurgence with the five-time Silver Slugger award winner’s arrival.
Yes, the numbers show that the Mariners’ offense was far superior after Edgar arrived. But, should the credit go the team’s new hitting coach or was it something else?
Out with the old
As the Mariners’ bats sputtered during the early months of the 2015 season, former GM Jack Zduriencik tried his best to tweak the 25-man roster prior to the July 31 trading deadline in hopes of jump-starting the team’s ineffective offense. Most notably, he parted ways with three players – Willie Bloomquist, Justin Ruggiano, and Rickie Weeks – via the designation for assignment (DFA) process. All three were gone by July 6. Shortly thereafter, Austin Jackson and Dustin Ackley were traded away to postseason contenders.
With the exception of Jackson, the group performed woefully at the plate. Even with Jackson’s league-average level of production included, these former Mariners produced a combined .234/.279/.328 triple-slash while accounting for 28-percent of the team’s first-half at-bats. Replacing these five players with better options played a pivotal role in boosting the team’s production at the plate.
In with the new
Four players – Franklin Gutierrez, Ketel Marte, Mark Trumbo, and Jesus Montero – were the key position player additions to the major league squad in 2015. They joined the Mariners at different times, but their arrival helped usher out the five players previously mentioned. The “new guys” accounted for 33-percent of the team’s second half at-bats and their .269/336/481 slash helped rejuvenate an offense that scored the second fewest runs scored in the American League during the first half. Conversely, Seattle ranked number-five in runs scored during the second half.
Of the four new players, Trumbo was the only big league regular when Edgar arrived. During his first month with Seattle, the slugger was terrible with a .151/.184/.205 slash and one home run. Fortunately for the 29-year-old slugger and the Mariners, he bounced back by slugging 12 homers and posting a .295/.351/.479 slash for the remainder of the season.
Couldn’t Trumbo’s resurgence be a by-product of Edgar? Sure, but I’m not ready to say Trumbo’s bounce back was due to his new hitting coach because the right-handed power hitter is known to be a streaky hitter. A comparison of his 2015 totals to his career averages illustrates that he didn’t do much more than perform at his career norms.
Mark Trumbo 2015 vs. career averages
|162 Game Avg.||162||648||150||28||2||31||42||161||.250||.300||.458||.758|
Another factor in the Mariners’ rebound was the second-half turnaround of two of Trumbo’s teammates – Robinson Cano and Brad Miller. Cano was easily the most disappointing Mariner during the first half. He was under-performing in most offensive categories and wasn’t contributing at the level expected for a player who earns $24 million annually.
By now, it’s well known that the 32-year-old struggled with stomach-related issues earlier in the season. Since opening up about his health struggles in early July and getting his gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) under control, the six-time all-star – like Trumbo – “flicked the switch” and began delivering outstanding numbers after July 1.
Miller’s defensive struggles at shortstop made the 25-year-old the one of the more scrutinized Mariners during the 2015 season. But, his fielding miscues were exaggerated as were his alleged issues with the bat. Miller was a good – although inconsistent – offensive contributor. Like Seager and Cruz, he had two bad months. In Miller’s case, it was May and July. Interestingly, he struggled most during the same two months in 2014 before finishing strongly with Howard Johnson as his hitting coach.
There were a couple of Mariners who played at relatively the same level throughout the season – Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager. Imagine how bad the first-half offense would have been without this duo? Cruz was the team’s big free agent signing last offseason and he performed well above the expectations of many in 2015 and will likely receive votes for American League Most Valuable Player award. He won’t win the award, but he certainly was the Mariners’ best offensive performer.
Seager was – once again – a strong presence in Seattle’s line-up. The 27-year-old performed near his career averages despite June and August struggles. Like Cruz, Seager could be counted on to play virtually every day; he only missed one game in 2015. Thanks to Cruz and Seager, the Mariners had two hitters who stabilized the lineup, while accounting for 22-percent of the team’s at-bats in 2015.
Although I was unmoved by Edgar’s hiring and contend that his presence wasn’t the reason for the offense’s strong second half, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that his expertise isn’t needed. There are several Mariners who could learn from the two-time batting champion – if the players are willing to listen and learn.
When Edgar assumed the role as the Mariners’ hitting coach, the player most mentioned as a candidate for reclamation was the team’s catcher – Mike Zunino. The right-handed hitter is a superb defender behind the plate who possesses immense power with the bat. Unfortunately for him and the team, he struggled mightily throughout 2015 and became a boo-bird target.
How bad was it for Zunino in 2015? Former manager Lloyd McClendon opted to have a player with above-average extra base power sacrifice bunt 10 times, which tied him for sixth most in the American League. Yes, Zunino’s former skipper would rather have him bunt despite the fact that he could “run into” a ball and easily hit it over 400 feet.
On the surface, it initially appeared that the 24-year-old was turning a corner under the tutelage of his new hitting mentor after he hit .222 in July. Another sign of how bad it was for Zunino in 2015 – a .222 batting average for a month created optimism.
Mike Zunino monthly splits
The former Florida Gator’s improvement didn’t last though. In late August, Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish described via Twitter just how badly Zunino had regressed. The next day, the power hitting receiver was demoted to Class-AAA Tacoma and he didn’t return when rosters expanded on September 1.
In retrospect, May turned out to be Zunino’s best month when he had a better batting average and far superior slugging percentage. Perhaps, Edgar’s guidance will take hold with the young backstop in 2016.
Another underachieving Seattle regular who could use Edgar’s help is first baseman Logan Morrison. The 28-year-old started off very poorly in April, although he showed signs of returning to form during May and June. Regrettably, the combination of a bruised thumb and Montero’s arrival significantly reduced his second-half playing time at first base.
Morrison did bounce back in September and made sure to give his hitting coach credit when he told Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle “Shoot, I have a new swing. He’s been trying to get me to do this for like a month now.” Only time will tell if “LoMo” can sustain the improvement he enjoyed during the last month of the regular season.
Logan Morrison monthly splits
Two others who spent time with Seattle this season who could benefit from Edgar’s expertise are infielders Marte and Chris Taylor. Although Marte hit the ground running in Seattle, “Gar” may be able to help the switch-hitter with his hand placement, which is different from each side of the plate.
Like Marte, the right-handed hitting Taylor could also benefit to changes with his hands. Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill noted in August that Taylor’s “hitch in his swing makes him late on good velocity and perhaps later than is ideal on offspeed stuff.”
Coincidentally, hand placement is something that Edgar emphasizes. During a wide-ranging conversation about hitting, the seven-time all-star told David Laurila of FanGraphs.com that “how you position your hands is important.” Marte and Taylor are just two examples of young Mariners who can learn from the Mariners icon.
Edgar Martinez has been a positive influence on the team’s hitters – Morrison’s comments reinforce that point. But, that doesn’t mean that the greatest designated hitter in the history of the game was the impetus behind the Mariners’ second-half offensive surge.
Even Edgar acknowledged the difficulty with hitters making in-season changes when he told Laurila “breaking a habit is difficult and it takes time. It’s hard to make an adjustment like that – a bigger adjustment – in the middle of the season.” His own words appear to confirm that the Mariners’ second half had more to do with the players than their guru.
At best, all a coach can hope to do is maximize a player’s potential. Edgar isn’t going to turn Zunino into Buster Posey. On the other hand, it’s plausible that Edgar might be able to kick-start the three-year major leaguer’s career before it’s too late. That, in itself, would be an impressive feat.
Having the time to work with Zunino, Marte, Taylor, and other youngsters when there aren’t any games will help because, as Edgar puts it, “it’s not easy to make a change, because they’ve done the same thing for so long.”
Fortunately for Edgar fans and the Mariners, he’s been afforded the opportunity the stay with the club as their hitting coach despite the fact that they have a new manager in Scott Servais. GM Jerry Dipoto has made it clear that improving as a player is a career-long process and not just a minor-league function when he stated that “player development at the major-league level is never ending.”
Who better to help usher in young hitters than a should-be Hall of Famer who has the designated hitter named after him? Having Edgar around the batting cage, in the clubhouse, and in the dugout will certainly help the Mariners’ offense in 2016. However, Dipoto getting better hitters will help the offense much more than any coach could – even if their name is Edgar Martinez.