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Peterson's Struggles Point to Organizational Blindspot

Usually minor league baseball articles are rather benign. Imagine all the articles that MLB.com pumps out, those with some info but mostly talking about how great a player or a team is, but then downsize it to minor league baseball. The site is littered with profiles of prospects finding success and working towards the big leagues.

This morning an article about M's top prospect D.J. Peterson popped up on the website, with a common enough title. M's Peterson checks tape, goes yard. The subtitle is just as common: "Generals third basemen socks fifth career grand slam, adds key single." There is no doubt that this article aims to follow the most common MILB.com article archetype - prospect finding success and working towards the big leagues.

The context is important to keep in mind, because I am about to veer away from the main point of the article. While the overall narrative is what would be expected from the title, there are some eye-raising details in the story. The money passage:
Seattle has been on the lookout for right-handed power for years, and Peterson made some adjustments to his swing in the offseason in an attempt to improve his chances of getting to the Majors as soon as possible. 
The tweaks backfired. Peterson was hitting .211 with a .582 OPS and two homers through the end of May. The 23-year-old wasn't striking out more, but when he hit the ball, the contact lacked the same authority. 
"I think maybe in the offseason, I was trying to do a little too much," he said. "I tweaked something and built a bad habit and took a long time to get out of it." 
Peterson has attempted to bust out of the slump in the video room. He's studied video of his college days at New Mexico and from earlier in his professional career, noting that his hand positioning and other mechanics were different this season.
The Mariners have a list of high profile busts. Dustin Ackley and Mike Zunino are home-grown players who have struggled more than anticipated. Now D.J. Peterson seems to be going down the same route.

The lazy analysis is that the Mariners do not draft well. However, Jack Zduriencik comes from a strong scouting background. Furthermore, he has drafted some underrated gems, namely Kyle Seager and Brad Miller. Both were respected by national scouts but seen as lesser players than they have become.

My working theory, for several years now, is that the Mariners do not develop players well. This is why I find the Peterson article so interesting. It gives us a glimpse into the development of a Mariners top prospect. The glimpse is concerning.

The article infers that D.J. Peterson made mechanical adjustments on his own in the offseason, without recommendations from the Mariners. That is worth noting. However, it is also clear that Peterson made his adjustments to increase his power output and make the majors faster. Zduriencik droned on last year about how the Mariners desperately needed right-handed power, and Peterson must have listened.

Peterson made his mechanical adjustments as the Mariners signed Nelson Cruz, and well before the awkward trade for Mark Trumbo. He showed up to spring training with the new mechanics, took plenty of batting practice, and no Mariners coach bothered to stop him. All of these moves would reasonable send signals to Peterson that he was doing a good thing. Now, Peterson is going back to tape of his college days to fix his swing.

Let that last point sink in for a second: D.J. Peterson was a better hitter in college than he is after two years in the Mariners minor league system. He has had access to professional coaches for two years and this is the point he is at. The article says Peterson has watched hours of tape on his college swing, so he sounds coachable, to say the least. He has also been the highest-rated prospect on every team he has been on, given that he is rated as the top or second best prospect in the M's system, depending on how much a publication prefers Alex Jackson's upside.* So not only is Peterson coachable, but he should be a player the M's farm system pays very close attention to.

*Alex Jackson, by the way, has also struggled quite a bit in his first year as a professional.

D.J. Peterson, from the sounds of it, tried to turn himself into Mark Trumbo this offseason. It didn't work.

The Mariners have emphasized power at the major league level, especially from the right side of the plate, at an unhealthy rate. They have sacrificed on-base percentage and defense to the point that any gains from the power are more or less lost by the deficiencies. This article about Peterson shows that the mentality has seeped into the minor league system too and you have to wonder what kind of impact it is having.

Consider some more circumstantial evidence:
  • Dustin Ackley's walk rate in 2015 is noteworthy because it is the only time it has risen a noticeable amount since he became a Mariner in 2009. That's six years of stagnation or decline in his walk rate. In fact, Ackley has only one MLB season (2012) where his walk total was higher than his highest walk total in college (2008). The difference is small - 59 to 53 - but the real kicker is that it took Ackley 607 at-bats to get those walks in the majors. He had 278 at-bats in his 59 walk season at North Carolina.
  • Brad Miller, even as a success story, is a different ballplayer under the M's tutelage. He had marginal power in college and walked about 1.5 times for every time he struck out. Now? He strikes out twice as often as he walks with more power than was projected out of college.
  • Kyle Seager, perhaps the best success story of the Zduriencik era, is a different player under the M's tutelage. He came out of North Carolina as a utility player because he had a high walk rate with marginal power at best. He hit 17 home runs his whole career at North Carolina. Ackley, for reference, hit 22 in his final season alone at North Carolina, and Ackley and Seager were at North Carolina the exact same years. Seager's walk rate has sunk as a Mariner while his power has spiked.
  • Alex Jackson, the other big M's hitting prospect, has 65 strikeouts to 38 hits this year.
  • Tyler O'Neill, in Bakersfield, has 11 walks, 87 strikeouts, and 16 home runs this year. He may hit 30 home runs and only grade out as an average offensive player. He's on pace to do that.
I realize I am cherry-picking here. This isn't the most rigorous analysis. Also, it is common for hitters to walk more and strike out less in college because of the major talent gap between college and the majors and the switch from aluminum to wood bats. Power often sinks too though.

Still, when an MLB team pursues players with a certain skillset, has prospects making adjustments to fit that skillset, and a handful of prospects in the system compile data that suggests they are going for that skillset, it sure seems like there is an organizational focus on that skillset. For the Mariners, this skillset is simple: POWER, at all costs.

Focusing on a skillset is fine. Obsessing over it seems problematic. It has led to obvious holes on the major league roster. A deeper hole might be developing in the minor leagues too. A change in approach probably made Brad Miller and Kyle Seager better players, but an obsession with power at all costs seems likely to hurt more prospects than it helps.