Prior to the Matts, the A’s 2017 wasn’t all that exciting. Sonny Gray’s resurgence was fun but tainted some by trade rumors and struggles, Rajai’s return was just meh, so on and so forth.
The best story of that first half may have been that of Yonder Alonso, Swing Changer. In his final year before free agency, Alonso went from a mostly powerless groundball hitter to a flyball masher as he learned to swing up on the ball.
What made Alonso’s change so especially sensical was the low stakes that accompanied it. A 2017 campaign similar to his 2016 might have ended in a DFA, with both Ryon Healy and Matt Olson vying for Alonso’s playing time. At 29 years young, Alonso was nearing a make or break time in his career and should he not have found his power stroke, was potentially on his way out of the game.
Also important is the underlying skill that allowed Alonso to succeed with that change. Should Alonso have been me for example, swinging up on the ball would have done nothing. The directionality of my swing wouldn’t affect my results in the slightest, my scrawny arms unable to put the ball in play much less hit it for extra bases.
Alonso had all the necessary tools to make the change. His pitch recognition has always been strong, he’s built like a tank and he’s long had the ability to make solid contact. All that was missing was the direction of his swing, and while the science and the mechanics and the practice that went into succeeding is undoubtedly complicated, the decision wasn’t: Yonder had nothing to lose and everything to gain by swinging up.
Who on the A’s has the chance to make a low risk change?
Jesse Hahn, reliever
This is admittedly not a minor mechanical change, but it does seem low risk and like the right move to do.
In his final option year, it’s make or break time for Hahn. He’s either going to stick in the bigs or he’s gone from the organization. The latter option might be best for Hahn who could potentially benefit from a change of scenery.
So long as he’s still here, it’s best to try and find him an optimal home. The A’s have yet to really try Hahn as a reliever. He had a brief stint as the long guy in 2017 that went so well, he forced his way back into the rotation where he immediately returned to his inconsistent ways. Hahn’s small sample in the pen doesn’t mean he’ll succeed there, but it’s another indication the A’s should consider trying.
With a hard sinker with lots of movement and a big looping curve, Hahn clearly has the stuff to excel in a shorter stint with the arm to eat some innings. Over his career, Hahn has always struggled with consistency. When his sinker has sunk, his curveball has hung and when he’s started to find his groove, his health has failed - it’s always one thing or another. Relievers don’t need the same arsenal a starter does, and Hahn can succeed with just two pitches and get by when that consistency does fail him.
It’s unclear how long a leash Hahn will have, as the A’s haven’t seemed particularly enamored with him since his struggles commenced. It wouldn’t be a surprise for him to be out of the org at the end of spring.
If the A’s do give him a precious roster spot, it’d be better to give him one with less pressure and less bearing on the team’s competitive hopes. Should Hahn continue his poor pitching of the past few years as the long man? It’s probably not the difference between a playoff berth or not, as the long man is often used in games that have already been decided. If he finds his groove? You don’t need me to tell you that the A’s could use relief arms and it’s obvious Hahn has the stuff to succeed.
Liam Hendriks predictability behind in the count
To be fair, every pitcher is better when the count is in their favor and worse when it’s not. That’s especially true for Hendriks. In his career, he’s 135% better ahead in the count than when he’s behind in the count, a number that jumped to 199% in 2017. That’s mucho.
There are always lots of conflating factors that are play into these specific numbers. A pitcher might struggle behind in the count because a hitter can target one pitch or one part of the zone, it might be the result of a pitcher being afraid to challenge a great hitter and thus falling behind, it might just be an indicator that a pitcher doesn’t have his best command or stuff. All of these factors are tough to track and harder to cure. There’s no simple catch-all, Yonder Alonso like fix to why a pitcher can’t hit his spots.
What Hendriks may be able to change is his predictability. When he’s behind in the count, he reverts to a fastball more than 80% of the time. All things being equal, Hendriks fastballs are fine offerings. Behind in the count with no predictability? The results aren’t good. His pitch selection, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
Worse is that Hendriks is throwing almost all of these fastballs pitches in very hittable parts of the zone. Behind in the count it’s important to throw strikes, but from the results you might be able to guess their location isn’t optimal. It’s not. From FanGraphs.
Hendriks does have some difficulty throwing his secondary stuff for strikes, which is of course why he relies so heavily on those fastballs when he falls behind. But with the vast majority of the damage coming behind in the count against that offering that hitters seem to be jumping on, trying something else isn’t the worst idea. And it’s not like Hendriks has no idea where his other pitchers are going either.
It’s not risk free, but a huge portion of the damage against Hendriks takes place in hitters’ counts. Still, could be worth the try.
Jharel Cotton, fastball up in the zone
Eno Sarris spoke to Jharel Cotton’s fastball location in a fantastic article at The Athletic. The gist of the issue is that Cotton throws his fourseam fastball down in the zone in spite it being a pitch that’s much more effective up in the zone.
It’s never clear where the line is between coaching and execution, and Cotton’s troubles in 2017 are no doubt also due to his own failure to put his pitches where he wanted. In almost every start, you could easily pick out a dozen instances of Cotton hanging a curveball or leaving a change in the middle of the zone - his command was a constant issue. Changing his fastball location can be a quick fix, but only if he’s able to showcase that command we saw in 2016. He needs to be sharper across the board.
Still, it’s at least a little bit reassuring that part of Cotton’s game plan may have been wrong. Fixing pitch selection is easier than fixing execution, and hopefully moving that fastball up in the zone will provide an instant lift.
Who do you think should make an adjustment in 2018?