baseball

Dylan Moore should swing Moore, worry Less

The Mariners are a team that loves a catchy slogan. Go to batting practice or a pregame workout and you’ll see a host of players wearing shirts with more acronyms than an intro-level business course: “DMGB” (Doesn’t Matter, Get Better) is popular, as is “27 outs.” , no more” favored by Perry Hill’s pupils, while pitchers often sport “DTZ,” standing for Dominate the Zone (formerly CTZ, Control the Zone). That last one has been around for the majority of the Dipoto era, so familiar now that it fades to background noise, and usually makes itself most evident when Mariners pitchers are efficiently mowing through opposing lineups. But the DTZ philosophy makes itself known in the batter’s box, as well.

Last year, the Mariners as a team saw an average of 3.94 pitches per plate appearance—second-highest in the AL behind only the Yankees, and tied with Atlanta for sixth-most in baseball. That’s a tick off where they were in 2021, when they were second-highest in all of baseball, again just trailing the Yankees, at 4 pitches/PA; in 2019, for as miserable as that Mariners team was in other areas, they led all of baseball at 4.11 pitches/PA.

Part of how the Mariners have risen up these ranks—they ranked dead last in pitches/PA in 2018—is by identifying and acquiring players who control the strike zone. Specifically, the Mariners have made it clear they have a middle-infielder type: they’re valuable players who can grind out at-bats, get on base, limit free outs via strikeouts, and play strong defense behind their pitchers. JP Crawford, who does all of those things, is entrenched at shortstop, so much so that the team didn’t even entertain looking into the bonanza of shortstops available in free agency this season. Second base, however, has been a longer search.

In their quest to find an everyday answer in a second, the Mariners have taken Shakira’s advice and gone on, tried everything. They’ve tried trading for it (Adam Frazier, Dee Strange-Gordon). They’ve tried developing the players themselves (Donovan Walton; end of list). They’ve tried a trade-develop hybrid (Shed Long Jr., Abraham Toro). They’ve tried waiver wire/career minor-leaguer see-if-it sticks plays (Kevin Padlo, Jack Mayfield, Austin Nola before they decided he was more valuable as a catcher). They’ve tried players whose names have been lost to Mariners history (Eric Campbell?). They’ve tried to bend it with not one, but two Beckhams (Gordon and Tim). They’ve tried things they really oughtn’t have (the 21 games Ty France played second base in 2021). They’ve even tried what many fans were hollering for them to do this season and shoved money into the problem (Robinson Canó, unsurprisingly the most valuable Mariner second baseman by WAR on this list, and it’s not close.).

This year, the team will be running back the first option, with a twist. When the Mariners acquired Adam Frazier prior to the 2022 season, Frazier, coming off an All-Star season, was clearly the team’s everyday second base solution, with Dylan Moore doing what he’s always done as a Mariner and filling in wherever the team needed. In 2022, that meant coming in as a bench player or a defensive replacement. Excluding the pandemic-shortened season, DMO had a career-low in plate appearances last season, and most of the defensive reps he got were in the Mariners’ terminally-shortened outfield.

But after years of moving him all over the diamond as a super-utility player, Moore’s role with the team has never seemed so clear-cut. The Mariners replaced Frazier with Kolten Wong this season and signaled their intent to platoon DMo with the lefty Wong, whose career wRC+ against lefties is just 80. By contrast, Moore’s handedness splits are less drastic: a 112 wRC+ against lefties vs. 92 against righties.

Some of that could be exposure. Wong is a ten-year vet of the bigs with an extensive track record, while Moore—acquired in the “career minor-leaguer/see-if-it-sticks” model outlined above—has only limited work over four seasons, including a pandemic-shortened one. Wong also fits the mold of the Mariners player who dominates the Zone, walking a lot and rarely striking out. Moore, on the other hand, still hasn’t been able to solve his strikeout issues, consistently coming up empty about a third of the time. Moore is especially vulnerable to sliders, the pitch he sees most often after the fastball; that high strikeout rate is due in part to sliders, a pitch he whiffs at 35% of the time with a K% of almost 43%.

Sliders are notoriously tough pitches to hit, and you can’t really blame DMo for looking silly on this one:

That was a tough at-bat for DMo, though; he fell into an 0-2 hole almost immediately with two called strikes on curveballs, and was forced into a defensive swing. In an 0-2 count, DMo’s OPS is about a hundred points lower than Wong’s (.483 vs. .582).

But in that same game, DMO also did this:

(I encourage you to listen to that with the sound on, as there is an amusing trio of sounds one after the other: the crack of Moore’s bat, the play-by-play announcer interrupting the color commentator with some analysis of his own ( “uh oh”), and a primal scream of exultation that might have come from DMo himself.)

I’ve made a meal on Twitter out of exaggeratedly pondering how the petite DMo, with his Disney-princess waist, can create such thunderous power. (Certainly Brooks Raley has given him an assist in that department.) But unfortunately, that power hasn’t flowed consistently. After a breakout in 2020, DMo took a step back in 2021. After producing a +7 RV (run value) on fastballs in 2020, he scored a -10 RV on the pitch in 2021, when he saw about twice as many. His xBA of .202 was in the bottom 2% in baseball. And the power breakout that we were hoping for after his 2020 campaign never came about, as his average exit velocity fell from the upper percentile of the league to the bottom 10%. Instead of seizing the second base job for good, Moore found himself again relegated to a bench player in 2022.

While he didn’t quite recapture his surprising power surge in 2022, Moore did improve on his 2021. Not in the strikeouts department, as pitchers will insist on throwing him sliders, but DMo did walk more in 2022. Most encouragingly, the power numbers started to slide back towards the red from the icy-blue depths of 2021. He started finding the barrel again, as he did in his breakout season; his 13% barrel rate is double MLB average, and his average exit velocity ticked back up (although still below MLB average). What this suggests is there’s still plenty of power in DMo’s bat; he just has to consistently unlock it by finding pitches he can damage.

And for all that foofaraw about his vulnerability to sliders, DMo actually does grind out fairly long plate appearances, on average. In 2020, DMo saw the lowest number of pitches per plate appearance in his career, averaging just 4.1 pitches/PA. That number has steadily grown as he’s absorbed the Mariners’ “D the Z” philosophy, all the way up to 4.47 in 2022. (Fun fact: of the 22 PAs he’s taken in a 3-0 count, he’s never once swung. Would like to see DMo get the greenlight just once.) His Swing/Take data suggests that actually, DMo doesn’t chase too often; He sees almost exactly the same breakdown of pitches as an average player, but is far better than most players laying off pitches in the “chase” zone—almost 10 percentage points better than average. This allows DMo to work deeper counts and hunt a pitch he can damage.

statcast

Except he could be doing a better job damaging said pitches. DMo actually swings less in the “heart” zone—that juicy pink center—than the average player. In his breakout season, DMo swung almost league-average at pitches in the heart, leading to a +2 run value, but as he’s started taking more pitches per plate appearance, he’s gotten less aggressive in the zone. For a player who strikes out as much as DMO, you’d expect him to be a way freer swinger, but that’s not the case. In 2022, Moore’s swinging strike rate was about 18%, lower than the MLB average (19.2%). On the other hand, his called strike rate was 35%—almost ten percentage points higher than the MLB average.

What it comes down to is an identity crisis. The Mariners want their middle infielders to be OBP machines, minimizing strikeouts and maximizing contact. But that’s not the player Dylan Moore is, at his heart. Trapped in the non-Herculean body of a minor-league grinder utility infielder is a power-hitting second baseman yearning to break free. And swinging for the fences might be the way DMO secures himself more playing time at a position the Mariners have struggled to fill for years.

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