Patience paying off for Mariners hitters
Club using walks to increase on-base percentage this spring
PEORIA, Ariz. -- A hitting approach that has been hammered into the Mariners' hitters for more than a year now finally seems to be hitting home.
A walk really can be as good as a hit.
With second baseman Chone Figgins leading the way, patience at the plate has been one of the bright spots this spring for a team that must rely on on-base percentage and manufacturing runs during the regular season to be successful.
After their first nine Cactus League games, the Mariners are among the American League leaders in walks with 38. That is fourth-highest, compared to the lowest last season, when the free-swinging team coaxed just 421 free passes -- 36 fewer than the next-to-last Royals.
That was partly responsible for the Mariners also finishing last in runs scored.
"This approach thing is something we talked about last year," Mariners hitting coach Alan Cockrell said on Friday, "and this year you are starting to see it come into play. A big part of that is bringing in a guy like Figgy. A big part of his game is being patient."
The switch-hitter was hitless in nine at-bats going into Friday's Cactus League game against the Royals at Peoria Stadium -- and had a .438 on-base percentage. A team-leading seven walks (and no strikeouts) enabled him to score four runs, which tied Ichiro Suzuki for the team lead.
"That tells me [Figgins] has incredible discipline, and I think it's rubbing off on others," Cockrell said. "I really do. I think it's carrying over and even showing up in batting practice to the point where the hitters are monitoring each other, and that's awesome.
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"I don't have to keep reminding them, and that's the beauty of it. This is a culmination of trying to attack and put pressure on the pitchers."
Manager Don Wakamatsu agrees that Figgins is influencing others.
"You watch him go through his routine and he doesn't swing at anything bad during batting practice and he makes everyone around him better," he said. "He brings a total awareness to it."
Even Jose Lopez, one of the numerous free swingers on the team last season, has shown signs of being more patient at the plate. He hasn't walked yet, but has just one strikeout.
It also helps that shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, third baseman Adrian Beltre and outfielder Wladimir Balentien are no longer with the team. All a pitcher had to do was throw a pitch in the neighborhood of the strike zone and they would swing at it.
But that is not the case with Figgins, who led the AL with 101 walks last season, and new first baseman Casey Kotchman, who has almost as many walks (157) in his MLB career as strikeouts (166).
"Anytime you have people on base, there is constant pressure on the defense," Cockrell said. "The pitcher knows he has to make pitches to get you out and we have guys who are willing to take a walk."
But even if patience does not lead to a free pass, extended at-bats would increase pitch counts and decrease the pitcher's effectiveness.
"The more pitches they throw, the quicker you get into their bullpen and that is what everyone is trying to do," Cockrell said.
Figgins said he is just doing what comes naturally, and that is trying to get ahead in the count and wait for a certain pitch in a certain area that he can drive.
"I am an aggressive hitter, but I try to make sure I am aggressive in the [strike] zone," he said. "It's not like I'm trying to get walks. I realize what my strengths and weaknesses are."
"He controls the front of the at-bat probably as good as anyone I have ever seen because he is so disciplined," Wakamatsu said. "Figgy will attack pitches in the zone and he's good at not swinging at close pitches."
The manager pointed to an at-bat Figgins had in Thursday's game against the Giants.
"The first pitch was a ball and the next one missed by this much," he said, holding his thumb and finger about an inch apart. "He took the pitch for a ball to make it 2-and-0. If he swings, it's 1-and-1 and changes the whole at-bat."
Figgins ended up with one of his three walks in the game, and scored.
The six-year MLB veteran said he has learned over the past two or three years the importance of being more patient at the plate, and waiting for the pitcher to make a mistake.
"The more [patience] I have down here, the better I will do in the regular season," Figgins said. "I am a swinger, I like to swing and I want hits. But I am at the point where the average thing doesn't count as much as having good at-bats.
"I am going to hit. That will not be a problem. Having a game plan is more important right now than having a high average."
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.