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Mariners’ new philosophy seems to be working

Bob Dutton Tacoma News Tribune

PEORIA, Ariz. – It’s just 23 spring games, so the sample size is hardly definitive, but the Mariners’ CTZ movement already shows signs of taking hold.

CTZ. Control the Zone.

More than a catchphrase, it is the sacred mantra of the club’s new administration under general manager Jerry Dipoto as it tries to reinvigorate a franchise that hasn’t reached the postseason since 2001.

It is constantly reinforced.

“It’s get a good pitch,” manager Scott Servais said. “It’s not walking. Would we like a few more walks? Absolutely. But that’s a byproduct of doing things the right way throughout an at-bat.

“Work yourself into a good count. When you get in a good count, and get a good pitch, let it rip. It’s also when you get down in the count, 0-2 and 1-2. Getting back to 3-2. Getting our players to understand that is the biggest thing.”

The CTZ philosophy doesn’t merely apply to hitters. The Mariners want their pitchers to take an attack mentality by, yes, controlling the zone.

“It’s not as shocking to them when we talk about the value of strike one,” Dipoto said. “They’ve heard that before. The value of being ahead in counts; we want them to pitch 0-1, 1-2, 0-2, and be able to finish hitters.”

Servais views it as a mind-set.

“When you get hitters down 0-2 and 1-2,” he said, “squash them. Wipe them out. Finish them. Instead of nibbling and try to get them to do this or that. You look up, and it’s 3-2, and now (the count) sways back in (the hitter’s) favor.”

The Mariners employ all sorts of stats to track their efforts, but they’re also using one that’s readily available to any fan: strikeout-to-walk ratio. Servias keeps an updated total on the board in his office.

It’s a combined count for pitchers and hitters that generates a plus/minus rating.

For hitters, walks are a plus, and strikeouts are a minus; for pitchers, just the opposite. The Mariners are a plus-27 through their first 23 spring games.

Big deal?

Servais points out that only once in the Mariners’ 39-year history did they finish with a winning record despite a negative rating. Last year’s 76-86 club posted a minus-66 rating.

This all represents a culture change for a club that previously relied heavily on home runs and power arms. Dipoto put everyone on notice last September, when he became GM, that things would change.

Acquiring players with CTZ skills became a priority, but it isn’t as simple as just looking at a player’s on-base percentage. As valued as that is, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all philosophy.

“There’s a difference between what Nori Aoki does and what Nelson Cruz does,” Dipoto said, “and we want there to be a difference. That’s how you score runs, so it’s not one standard philosophy that everybody’s adhering to the same.

“It’s a creative functionality within the borders of a theory, if that makes sense.”

That attack approach for pitchers comes with some risks.

“If you give up an 0-2 hit,” Servais said, “it’s going to happen once in a while. You can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to go after them, try to put them away, once in a while, you’re going to make a mistake, and they’re going to get a hit.”

The Mariners say analytics prove those 0-2 hits are acceptable when viewed in the full context of the benefits achieved through pitch efficiency and other factors. In effect, they are like defensive shifts that occasionally backfire.

(The latest stats on defensive shifts this spring show the Mariners at plus-16. That number is also updated daily on the white board in Servais’ office.)

All of this is relentlessly reinforced in a reflection of the Hafizian philosophy: “The words you speak become the house you live in.” The Mariners, in their house, want to control the zone.

The approach is valued over isolated results. A good at-bat that ends in an out draws acknowledgement. Yielding a hit on an 0-2 pitch is tolerated. All in the belief that the proper approach, over the long run, will produce better results.

“It takes time to get guys to understand that,” Servais said. “It’s been easier for us this spring because the players we acquired (in the offseason) already kind of did that.

“If you had the exact same team you had here last year, and threw it at them, we would get the same results that we’ve gotten. Our personnel is different.

“You’ll also see that throughout the organization as we acquire players. Whether it’s through trades, six-year free agents, through the draft, those players are going to have that skill set more ingrained in them.That makes it easier to get results.”

Those who don’t buy in?

“The numbers don’t lie,” Servais said. “They back up (the belief) that this will work, but some players just aren’t wired that way. When you notice that, they’d better bring something else to help you win games.

“Or there’s probably a better spot for them in a different organization.”

Paxton’s progress

Lefty James Paxton pitched five innings Tuesday for Triple-A Tacoma in order to stay on his regular schedule. He gave up two runs and four hits to Charlotte (White Sox) while striking out eight and walking one.

The two runs scored on home runs.

“I think it’s a pretty good spot to be,” said Paxton, who threw 44 of 73 pitches for strikes. “Two starts left. That will be able to get me up to at least 90 to 100 or so. That will be a perfect place to be.”

Paxton dominated at the outset. He retired the first eight batters, including six on strikeouts. He faded over the last two innings, when he threw just one first-pitch strike to the last eight batters.

Short hops

First baseman Dae-Ho Lee is expected to return Wednesday to camp after being present at the birth of his son in Seattle. Reports say the boy and mother are healthy. … Right-hander Nathan Karns is scheduled for six innings Wednesday when the Mariners resume their Cactus League schedule with a 7:10 p.m. game against Oakland. The Athletics list right-hander Jesse Hahn as their starter. The game will be televised by Root Sports Northwest. … The Mariners’ annual spring meeting with officials from the players’ association is scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday.

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