If anything has driven me crazier this season than the lack of defensive fundamentals, it is what I would characterize as the lack of hitting fundamentals. I speak not of swing mechanics, of which I know nothing, but rather of an approach to taking an at bat.
As I have oft complained, the A’s hitting approach this year has generally been best summarized as “swing at stuff,” a strategy that will reliably keep you at the bottom of the league in walks and OBP, while playing into the pitcher’s hand throughout each plate appearance.
It is no coincidence that the A’s offense has taken off in the past week. They are actually approaching at bats with a whole different mind-set: grind out at bats, make the pitcher work, get your pitch to hit and when you get it be ready to let ‘er rip. This is far from “trolling for walks” or “trying to raise pitch counts” — it is, in fact, a disciplined and intentional approach to hitting the right pitch, not just “a pitch,” and the results are palpable.
There are really only three reasons to swing at a pitch:
- It is the pitch you are looking for (fastball up, breaking ball you have timed or are sitting on, etc.)
- It is a mistake you can jump on (hanging slider, fastball center cut, changeup left at the belt, etc.)
- You have 2 strikes and gauge the pitch to be in the strike zone
Many pitches that are strikes do not fall into any of these categories. Early in the season, Yonder Alonso was commonly putting first-pitch strikes in play and getting out because the pitches, while strikes, were not mistakes or great pitches to hit. They were just in the strike zone and that alone is not a good reason to swing. Now, Alonso is being far more discerning and the result is deeper counts, more walks, and more contact on pitches that are good pitches to hit.
Last night, Marcus Semien had an at bat that I think typifies the A’s good approach this past week. In the 8th inning against Cory Gearrin, with runners on 1B and 2B, Semien took a ball to get into a hitter’s count 1-0, then watched a sinker at the knees for a strike. If he swings at that pitch because it’s a strike, you might well be looking at a rally-killing DP. Then Gearrin left a sinker up in the zone and Semien pounced, smashing a shot up the middle to drive in a run. That’s a great at bat and it has been pretty typical up and down the A’s lineup these past several games.
When you resolve to let as many “pitcher’s strikes” go but are ready to jump on every mistake, every “hitter’s strike,” to look for a pitch and only let ‘er rip if you get it, an approach that is pretty tried and true until you have 2 strikes and have to protect against even “pitcher’s strikes,” you are going to force pitchers to throw 3-4 good pitches to get you out, which often results in deep counts, walks, and more chances for a mistake you can jump on.
Walking and driving up pitch counts is not, in and of itself, a hitting approach. It’s a by-product of a hitting approach that relentlessly aims to wait for, and jump on, highly hittable pitches.
The A’s have not been trolling for walks lately, they’ve just been walking far more. They haven’t been focused on “driving up pitch counts,” they have simply used an approach that results in high pitch counts. They have been looking for, and waiting for, THEIR pitch to drive, but along with the patience to wait for that pitch comes an equally important aggressiveness in pouncing on that pitch whether it be the first or eighth pitch in the at bat.
A’s hitters have taken control of the at bats and as a result they are not only grinding out at bats, they are wearing out pitchers, grinding out walks, hits, and runs, and are looking like a deep and potent offense. Not certain what took so long but it is sure fun to watch.