I heard an interesting story while I was in New York: apparently a few years ago Jim Thome was watching ex-Royal Kila Ka’aihue take BP and asked to talk to him afterwards. Thome told Kila that he’d been watching and never saw Kila pull the ball for a home run—all the balls were hit to the opposite field. Thome then told Kila hitting home runs was a skill that had be worked on: it took lots of practice to hit a ball in the air without popping it up. (This point of view contradicts the theory that home runs should just happen. I guess it just shows there’s more than one to skin a cat.)
The interesting point here is that fans can watch batting practice and see if the hitter is working on the right skill. Power guys—say someone who has the potential to hit 20 home runs, but won’t hit for a high average—can spend BP trying to put the ball into pull-side seats. That’s what they’re supposed to do during a game, so practicing it isn’t a bad idea. (There are bench players who will never hit 20 home runs because they just won’t get the playing time, but still might be asked to pinch-hit, look for a mistake and lift and separate if they get one. So a guy like George Kottaras isn’t wasting his time hitting home runs in BP, it might be what he’s asked to do during a game.)
Gap-to-gap hitters should be working on hitting the ball hard between left and right-center field and once in a while they might catch a ball out in front and hit it out of the yard. These guys might try to work on their home run stroke by muscling up in the final rounds of batting practice.
Situational hitters include the two-hole hitter and guys at the bottom of the order. (Eric Hosmer is not a typical two-hole hitter).These guys should be working on line drives and hard grounders, particularly to the right side, because a situational hitter needs to use that stroke a lot. Every time there’s a runner on first, a runner on second with nobody out, a hit and run, or a runner on third with less than two down, a groundball to the right side is a good bet. But, like Kila and the home run swing, it needs to be practiced.
But some guys don’t want to practice hitting 12-hoppers through the right side because it’s embarrassing: their buddies are putting balls in the seats and they’re expected to hit routine grounders to the right of second base. Fans can watch batting practice and see who’s taking their job seriously and working on the appropriate swing. Fans can also see who’s just up there hacking.
There’s an old baseball saying: "Practice does not make perfect,perfect
practice make perfect." Practice the wrong thing and your swing won’t be there when it counts.
Not all walks are created equal
The longer you hang around with big-league ballplayers, the more complex your idea of baseball becomes. If a guy hit well with runners in scoring position, ask yourself; what was the score? If it was a tight game, the batter got the best the pitcher had to offer—he was trying to prevent a run from scoring. If it was a blowout, the batter may have gotten nothing but fastballs—the pitcher wanted the ball in play and was hoping the batter would hit it at someone. Context changes things.
Look at a stolen base: if the pitcher used a slide step and got the ball to home plate in under 1.4 seconds, it might have been the catcher’s fault. If the pitcher used a full leg kick and took 1.6 second to get the ball to home plate, the catcher didn’t have much of a chance.
The same thing applies to walks: lately we’ve posted a couple conversations with Royals pitchers and they’ve been very open about their thought process while on the mound. Listen to them for a while and you realize they can use a walk in their favor; they might be working around a guy to get to the hitter on deck or they might be setting up a double play.
Luke Hochevar told me a story about playing in St. Louis: the Royals had one out, a runner at second and a red-hot Billy Butler at the plate. The pitcher worked around Butler, throwing pitches just outside the strike zone. Butler walked—and the crowd cheered.
Luke wondered if the St. Louis fans were really that sharp; did they understand why the pitcher walked Butler?
A groundball and a double play later, Luke got his answer: the St. Louis fans gave a standing ovation to a pitcher who used a walk to set up a double play and then had the skill to get the groundball needed to complete the deal.
So next time you look at a box score and see the starting pitcher walked three, ask yourself why. It might be lack of control, it might be fear of contact, but it also might be smart pitching.
A quote to remember
As we head into the second half of the season, here’s a quote from an ex-president that we would all do well to remember…
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."