Wakamatsu already thinking about how to improve the Mariners

PEORIA, Ariz. — Spring training doesn’t begin for another three months, but manager Don Wakamatsu already knows what he’ll say to the Seattle Mariners on the first day.

“How many guys in this room have won a World Series?” he will ask. “Really? None of you? That’s what we’re here for, right? OK, then if I ask you to run out a ball, is that going to help us win a World Series?”

Wakamatsu helped lead the Mariners to 85 victories this year, a 24-game improvement from the previous season that earned him support in the manager of the year voting that will be announced today.

Wakamatsu, in Arizona last week to watch the organization’s prospects in the Arizona Fall League, said he hasn’t unwound mentally since the end of the season. He has been too busy considering the factors that kept the Mariners from being even better.

“I don’t if I’ll ever unwind,” he said. “We finished 12 games out of first place and you always think of ‘What if? How do we improve?’”

A couple new hitters with power certainly can’t hurt what was the worst-scoring offense in the American League, and general manager Jack Zduriencik is working on that.

But Wakamatsu believes there’s plenty the Mariners can do that might make a difference between a winning team and a contending team. They will continue to emphasize more disciplined at-bats and all-out hustle until the final out, but there’s also little things that define championship teams.

The Mariners threw 61 wild pitches, including 17 by Felix Hernandez. Wakamatsu wants to cut that number in half.

How many times did a Mariners baserunner fail to advance on a pitch in the dirt? Enough that baserunning will be emphasized in spring training.

The Mariners won 85 games but blew 28 save opportunities this year, numbers that tell Wakamatsu they were in a position to win 113 games. By comparison, the Angels had 116 combined victories and blown saves, the Yankees 118, Red Sox 118 and Twins 103. Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Minnesota made it to the American League playoffs.

“What amazes me and validates what we did this year is that we put ourselves in a position to win (113 games),” Wakamatsu said. “That’s phenomenal. If we do that next year, I’ll take it.”

But next year, there’s more the Mariners must do.

Disciplined at-bats remain one of Wakamatsu’s key issues for improvement, and a recent conversation he had with Texas Rangers star Michael Young reinforced the importance.

“He said there are team at-bats and there are individual at-bats, and when players understand when those (happen) is when they become good hitters,” Wakamatsu said.

Too many times, he said, the Mariners’ starter would labor with a high early pitch count but their hitters wouldn’t give him a breather with deep at-bats of their own.

“We would swing at the first pitch in the dirt and hit a ground ball for an out, and all of a sudden we’re right back on defense,” Wakamatsu said. “That’s a team at-bat. Our batter has got to take a pitch. I don’t care if it’s right down the middle, take one pitch.”

Wakamatsu believes young players like Matt Tuiasosopo, Rob Johnson, Adam Moore, Michael Saunders and Mike Carp benefitted from some tough lessons they learned this year. Again, plate discipline was a problem, especially when they helped opposing pitchers escape early trouble and settle into a rhythm.

“We would ask them, ‘We’re in the second inning, what was the opposing pitcher’s pitch count?’

They would say, ‘I don’t know.’

“Then we’d tell them, ‘Why? Have we not done a good enough job to get you guys to understand that we can get Lackey out in the fifth inning if we squeeze five more pitches out of him here?’ Or, ‘You’re leading off an inning and it’s a 3-1 count, what is the matter with taking that one pitch?’

“They might say, ‘Well, that might be the only one I can hit.’

“And we’ll tell them, ‘That’s the problem, that you think that’s the only pitch you can hit.’”

But even long at-bats aren’t necessarily good at-bats. Both Jose Lopez and Adrian Beltre had at-bats when they fouled off several pitches.

“There would be an 11-pitch at-bat and a lot of guys would say, ‘Hey, great at-bat. Way to battle,’” Wakamatsu said. “But we’d go back and look at it on video and not one of the pitches they swung at was a strike.”

The individual improvement also extends to the manager. Wakamatsu says he has an insatiable appetite to learn.

“I was fascinated watching the playoffs,” he said. “I was driving to Oregon and listened to the Minnesota-Detroit tiebreaker game on the radio. It’s one of the greatest games I ever listened to, and I’m going to get a video of that so I can watch (Tigers manager) Jimmy Leyland and (Twins manager) Ron Gardenhire. I watched Joe Girardi’s style with the Yankees, how he went left-right-left-right in using the bullpen.

“There was a game when Minnesota had a one-run lead and the Yankees had a runner on third with nobody out. The hitter hits a fly down the right-field line and it’s not clear-cut whether they should catch it or not. Catch it and the guy scores and it’s a tie ballgame, so do you take the out or let it go foul? In spring training, at some point we’re going to run that drill.”

The bottom line is that Wakamatsu, despite his pride in a winning season, will remind everyone at spring training that there’s a greater goal, and improving on the little things can make a big difference.

“Now I can go back to guys and say we won 85 games. Ten more might have put us in the playoffs,” he said. “Ten games.”

Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog

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