The Mariners’ one enduring tradition to baseball lore is the Mendoza Line. And it is the Mariners who are threatening to rewrite that standard of futility with Mike Zunino. Your move, Edgar Martinez.
Between the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay and taking some time for a home-maintenance project, I missed the chance to say hello to Edgar Martinez and welcome him back to an active Mariners role properly. So . . .
Run away, Edgar! Run away!
Too late, huh?
One way to look at it is that being the Mariners’ hitting coach is a no-lose proposition for him; he can’t make the most ineffective-hitting team in the American League worse. I mean, there’s no relegation tool in MLB as there is in English soccer. A shame, really.
On the other hand, Martinez’s failure to help will soil his reputation for future work elsewhere, which will happen when the Mariners exercise their only real tradition on offense — firing the hitting coach — about this time next year. Since 2001, they’ve had at least 12 hitting coaches, although I may have missed one or two during a weekend covering the Seahawks.
Since his June 19 hire, the Mariners are 4-5, thanks mostly to scoring 30 runs. If memory serves regarding his playing career, Martinez would drive that many runs in during a weekend homestand. But as Mariners fans know, none of these guys are Edgar Martinez, the greatest right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio.
Then again, Martinez may not care about being fired. He as much as admitted he returned to the club out of boredom.
“I had too much time on my hands,” Martinez told Tacoma Rainiers broadcaster Mike Curto, published in The News Tribune. “I always wanted to get back to the game. Right now my family is busy, my wife is working, my kids are all in school and they’re old enough where I can travel more. It’s a good time for me to do it.”
And if it doesn’t work out, well, he can join the race for the Republican presidential nomination, since everyone else is.
Meanwhile, in his inevitably short tenure as Seattle hitting coach, it would seem that there is but one prime directive — get C Mike Zunino to stop being the worst hitter in the AL.
Epic as the task seems — Zunino may become the first player in MLB history to have more strikeouts than at-bats — there was a flicker lately. Entering Sunday’s game in Anaheim against Anaheim, Zunino was hitting .357 (5×14) with two runs, one home run, two RBI, one walk and one strikeout in 16 plate appearances over the previous four games.
Then he reverted, going 0-for-4 with two Ks. In his first 63 games, he hit .155 with 82 strikeouts. In 11 games (June 10-22) before the last five, he struck out 19 times while collecting four singles in 36 at-bats.
At that intense rate of futility, Zunino is threatening to rewrite the only enduring, significant contribution the Mariners have made to the batsman culture in MLB, the Mendoza Line — the standard for year-long haplessness for a regular in a major league lineup.
To catch up those new to Seattle’s great tradition, Mario Mendoza was a nine-year major leaguer from Mexico who in 1979 was a shortstop for the Mariners. He managed a career-high 401 plate appearances that year, which meant he was helluva fielder because he finished the season hitting .198.
That Seattle clubhouse joke of hitting below .200 was used to tease future Hall of Famer George Brett after a slow start in 1980 with the Royals. After he explained the joke to a fledgling sportscaster named Chris Berman on a fledgling network, ESPN, that was built almost entirely on catch-phrases, the Mendoza Line — describing any regular hitter at .200 or below — became a thing long before things today were things.
Now, the circle nears closure because another Mariners player whose defensive play is crucial, Zunino, is hitting .166. He is the worst-hitting regular in the American League, although his backup, Jesus Sucre, is the worst-hitting catcher with more than four at-bats (1-for-23, .062).
Martinez’s goal should be to get Zunino’s average up to .200 — one point more than last year at .199 — so that baseball’s wise guys won’t feel compelled to say the Mendoza Line is obsolete, replaced by the new Zunino Line of .170.
Of all the jobs in big time pro sports, I’m least clear about the role of hitting coach at the major league level (well, OK, football deflators, but that’s for another time). All of their subjects know how to hit, or they wouldn’t be there. Hitting coaches are more disposable than PR directors for the Tobacco for Tots campaign, have no real metrics for the position and have almost no constituency in the clubhouse to stand for them. Hell, Mendoza has been a hitting instructor.
But Martinez has always had a discerning eye, be it for a pitch, or for the obvious.
“Right now, (Zunino) is a mess, and we have to get him straightened out,’’ he told the Seattle Times. Good on you, ‘Gar.
As for the other guys in the lineup, they’re good enough and compensated well enough, to figure out their own damn selves. Zunino was rushed to the majors before he was ready, and as with another former No. 1 of the Mariners, OF Dustin Ackley, hasn’t been able to get out of his own way. Martinez at least has a shot if he can break down either or both to a blank slate.
Martinez has no hope of fixing the lineup that has too many big-fly, big-whiff guys that GM Jack Zduriencik has a man-crush on, like OF Mark Trumbo.
In the 20 Seattle games since his acquisition via trade from Arizona, Trumbo is 11 for 74, a .151 average and a .390 OPS.
Martinez’s time as hitting coach is too short to have him worry about another Mariners player setting another futility record below Mendoza AND Zunino.