By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — It’s a single sheet of paper posted on the main message board as you enter the Mariners’ spring clubhouse alongside that day’s workout schedule, lineup card and travel roster.
The sheet contains three rows of numbers beneath the headings: Ground balls, strikeouts and fly balls.
It was first posted the day after the Mariners opened their Cactus League schedule and, as it grows line by line, serves as a simple reminder.
“It’s not a stat thing,” pitching coach Rick Waits emphasized. “I’m not trying to create some stat or a 2-1 or 3-1 (ratio).
“I’m just trying to make everybody conscious that every time you put your foot on the rubber in a game, you should be trying to get a ground ball or a strikeout.”
The Mariners actually ranked high in those areas a year ago. They topped the American League in the ratio of ground-ball outs to fly-ball outs, and they ranked fifth as a staff in the league in strikeouts.
Even so, only three AL clubs — Toronto, Minnesota and Houston — permitted more runs.
“Those ground balls might be base hits,” Waits agreed. “They might be doubles. There might be a ground ball that goes across the bag for a triple. It’s not a hit thing.
“But a ball on the ground or a strikeout, that’s what you’re trying to do against every hitter you face. You never want to have an approach of, ‘I’m going to get a fly ball.’ I’m just trying to keep it on their mind all of the time.”
The sheet shows the Mariners registered more ground balls than fly balls in six of their first 10 games. But after averaging just 11.6 fly balls for the first seven games, it jumped to 16.3 over the next three games.
That point was highlighted on the sheet.
“I want everybody to understand that I love strikeouts,” Waits said. “Love them. I love the (league-leading) strikeouts we got in our bullpen last year. That’s what I want, but you can’t get a strikeout until you get two strikes.
“So what are you going to do on strike one and strike two? Get the ball on the ground as best you can. If it’s on their mind, hopefully, it will help in their pitch selection in certain counts.”
Ask why ground balls are so important when the Mariners play half of their games at Safeco Field which, even in its trimmed-down dimensions, remains relatively forgiving to pitchers.
“You’ve got to pitch in all of the parks,” Waits countered. “I’m not saying on certain hitters at certain times in the game that you can’t pitch differently in a particular ballpark.
“But, overall, in 162 games, it doesn’t matter where you’re at. Get them to hit the ball on the ground. It’s a matter of being conscious of what pitch selection you’re going to use before you get to two strikes.”
Some early spring numbers support his case. The Mariners permitted 15 or more fly balls in half of their first 10 games.
Opponents scored 33 runs in those games. In the other five? Opponents scored just seven runs.
“I just want it on their mind,” Waits said. “Just because you have more on the ground, it doesn’t mean you always win…You can have 15 ground balls and 10 strikeouts, and you lose. But you lose 2-1 or 3-1.”
Be advised, though, the numbers on the sheet are Waits’ numbers. They might not match what you see on your own scorecard.
“Then the question always comes up,” he said with a broadening smile, “when you get a double play, is that two ground balls or one? It depends on how I want to twist it. If I need an extra one, I’ll put ‘two’ down.”