Rookies can’t hide from eyes

August 29, 2011 

Remember the Mariners’ rookie quintet that rocked and raked a few days ago in Cleveland? It looked like a strung-out quintet over the weekend at Safeco Field, where the Chicago White Sox swept a three-game series notable for the rookies’ regression.

All they hit was a wall.

Dustin Ackley went 2-for-12 with four strikeouts, including three in a row Sunday. Casper Wells went 0-for-7, with three strikeouts.

Trayvon Robinson went 1-for-8. Mike Carp, who sat out the matinee, went 1-for-8 with four strikeouts.

Only Kyle Seager – 3-for-11, with three strikeouts – managed to look like he wasn’t gulping up water in the deep end of the pool.

It’s fair to suspect the erstwhile minor leaguers have reached that point in the season where their bodies are telling their minds: “Enough.” Accustomed to thinking of the end of August as an approach to the finish line, they’ve still 30 games to play.

After watching one of the more lackluster games of a summer that has defined lackluster, manager Eric Wedge volunteered another theory on the rookies’ struggles.

“There’s no excuses – everybody has to be accountable – but you come over here and you get 30, 40, 50 at-bats, there’s a book on you,” Wedge said. “And if you have a little bit of success, there’s more of a book on you. This is big-league baseball, and pitchers are gonna attack those holes. They’re gonna attack you with some experience and video and scouting reports, and now it’s up to these kids to make the adjustment back.”

Scientific advancements have made baseball a different game – not necessarily better or worse, just different – than the game Wedge played when he was attempting to break in with the 1992 Red Sox. Video technology makes it possible to study every nuance of a hitter’s swing. Data-base systems supplement the knowledge opponents gather on each other.

“Night and day from when I played,” Wedge said. “Night and day. If somebody has one at-bat in the big leagues, we’re gonna get it.”

At least Wedge was familiar with video scouting, however primitive it seems now, during the 1990s. A decade earlier, the job of compiling information was given to advance scouts. They jotted down observations, often without the assistance of a replay monitor, from the press box.

I can recall talking to Atlanta’s Bob Horner before a 1983 game in Pittsburgh. The Braves were taking batting practice, preparing to face Lee Tunnell, an obscure Pirates starter.

“What do you know about their pitcher?” I asked Horner, who was his team’s cleanup hitter and titular captain.

“Not a thing,” Horner said. “Never heard of the guy.”

Horner wasn’t shirking his professional duties in failing to do homework on Lee Tunnell, because nobody did homework.

Hitters today have the technological tools to write a short essay on a pitcher’s arsenal, and vice-versa.

“It’s kind of what this is all about,” Seager said. “When you first come up, nobody knows you. Once you get good at-bats, there’s so much info out here they can pretty much see all your at-bats, and what you’re trying to do.

“It’s a game of adjustments.”

It’s also a game that requires patience. If what appeared to be a collective breakthrough for the rookies was an aberration, their fall from grace must be regarded with similar suspicion. Wells, for instance, might not be the potential cleanup man he looked like a few weeks ago. But he also might not be the overwhelmed rookie who was swinging and missing in the No. 4 spot Sunday.

He might be somebody in between: A decent hitter with occasional pop. On a better team, he’s a fourth outfielder who’s a phone call away from the minors. On this team, he’s an intriguing prospect.

The trick is to avoid the sort of knee-jerk assessment that found Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik sending Mike Morse to the Washington Nationals in a 2009 midseason trade for outfielder Ryan Langerhans. Morse never had a signature defensive position in Seattle, but he could hit a little, and these days he’s hitting a lot (specifically, he’s hitting .314, with 22 homers, 73 RBI, and a slugging percentage of .545, or 72 points higher than Wells’ slugging percentage of .473, best among the Mariners’ regular position players).

What makes Morse’s ascendance with the Nationals even more frustrating is that he was a home-grown product of a farm system that had produced few successes under ex-general manager Bill Bavasi.

The rookies have been the sole reason to stay tuned to the Mariners during the second half of the season, and they’re the sole reason to pay attention in September.

But there can no denying that desultory efforts such as Sunday’s – the White Sox pounced on starter Jason Vargas for three runs in the fourth, and six more in the sixth – are a chore to watch.

“You’re trying to learn who does what, how much stuff moves – trying to find your way,” shortstop Brendan Ryan recalled of the rookie experience.

“When I came up” continued Ryan, whose first season was with the 2007 Cardinals, “there were a lot of veterans – a lot of guys to lean on and ask for advice. It’s a little bit different here. We’ve got a young team, and we’re gonna make mistakes. Our job is to learn from them.

“We’ll make some adjustments tomorrow, and get ready to hit the heater.”

The Mariners will have no choice to make adjustments, because ignorance is not bliss in big-league baseball. Ignorance is a ticket off the roster. What you don’t know can cost you millions.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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