A's hitting: When 'grip and rip' goes wrong
03/31/2013 12:00 AM
10/08/2014 10:41 AM
That the 2012 A's met their end at the right arm of Justin Verlander, in Game 5 of the American League Division Series in which the Tigers' ace struck out 11 batters in a shutout, was somewhat fitting.
The A's were not shy about taking a hack. They led baseball in home runs after the All-Star break. They also struck out a major-league leading 1,387 times during the regular season – the third-highest single-season total by any team since 1900.
Some of the main contributors to that number are gone – Chris Carter, who struck out in 31.9 percent of his plate appearances, Jonny Gomes (31.2) and Brandon Inge (27.3).
Still, returnees include Brandon Moss (30.4 percent), Derek Norris (28.4) and Josh Reddick (22.4). And newcomer Chris Young, before missing part of last year due to injury, had smashed at least 15 homers while whiffing no fewer than 133 times each of his previous five seasons.
So, hitting coach Chili Davis, can we expect the same let-her-rip A's this season?
"Ah, no," Davis said during spring training in Phoenix, shaking his head and chuckling.
"I'm not trying to say that I want guys to go up there and put the ball in play to not strike out," Davis said. "But maybe just have a little better two-strike approach, you know? I think if we can have a little better two-strike approach, maybe we can cut down on the strikeouts."
That, Davis believes, was the crux of the issue last season. It wasn't that the A's were always a free-swinging club. In fact, according to the analytical website FanGraphs, their hitters swung at just 44.3 percent of the pitches they saw in 2012 – the fourth-lowest rate in baseball.
Rather, Davis said, when the A's did get into two-strike counts they too often continued to try to tee off, resulting in swings and misses. So he planned this spring to discourage the all-or-nothing mentality in those situations.
Reddick, for one, said that hit home.
"I'd get over-anxious in big situations, runners in scoring position, and felt like if I hit a home run right here, how much the crowd would go nuts, my teammates would go nuts," said Reddick, who led the A's in homers (32) and strikeouts (151) in 2012.
"I've just got to realize I can hit home runs naturally instead of trying," he said. "Just two strikes, stay the other way and react in."
Before that, Davis said, he's fine with guys letting loose on pitches they feel they can drive. The A's power surge fueled them down the stretch last season despite playing home games in a park widely considered a graveyard for fly balls. And they could be patient – drawing walks at the majors' fifth-highest rate.
"Someone came to me last year and said we were swinging at a lot of first pitches," Davis said. "And my response was, 'are they balls or are they strikes that we can hit?' Because if they're pitches we can hit, I don't want them taking the first pitch automatically.
"I should have (a pitcher) timed when I get to home plate that if he lays a pitch in my zone the first pitch, I should be ready to hit it. You only get so many pitches to swing at. Why give him one?"
Still, don't expect to see every A's hitter choking up in deep counts. Moss said strikeouts have always been part of his game, even in the minors. Last season, with encouragement from Davis, he embraced his innate aggressiveness and natural pull-hitting tendencies. The result – he struck out in nearly a third of his plate appearances but crushed 21 home runs in just 84 games.
"I am not good at going up with two strikes and trying to put the ball in play," Moss said. "When I do that I still strike out. So why would I cut down on my swing when I'm more effective, when I continue to swing like it's a 2-0 count?
"I'm just not very good at that. And I think, you are who you are."
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