As is my wont, I’m giving Friday over to some rapid-fire observations and notes, from all over the place:
- Every batter’s optimal plate approach is different. Some guys should swing much more often, especially in certain counts, than others. That’s not news, but it’s surprising how often players get a public rap on the knuckles for their approach, when the reality is that most guys probably know their bodies, their swings and their eyes better than even the most learned observers.Nick Markakis sure seemed to need an adjustment over the past few years, though. He was a fine player, usable, but beginning to fall from the ranks of the truly useful corner outfielders. A failure to develop power was partially to blame, but Markakis also wasn’t walking or hitting for average to the fullest of his abilities. In 2014, though, he’s changing that, simply by swinging more.Markakis makes a lot of contact. That’s been his strongest tool even during his darkest days. This season, he’s tapping into that skill better, by taking a nuanced step in the direction of being more aggressive.
From 2011-13, Markakis struck out in 10.7 percent of his plate appearances, walked 8.4 percent of the time, swung at 42.1 percent of all pitches (including 18.9 percent of the first pitches within at-bats) and made contact on 88 percent of his swings. That was fine, but by 2013, it was no longer working for him: He batted .271/.329/.356, the command of the strike zone not nearly making up for the fading power.
So Markakis doubled down on his greatest strength. In 2014, he’s swung more often (43.4 percent), but less (16.9 percent) on first pitches. By letting pitchers get themselves in trouble early in counts but staying out of two-strike situations, he’s brought his strikeout rate even lower (9.9 percent) and ratcheted his walk rate up to 9.2 percent.
The power is still gone, although he’s been hitting in more and more advantageous hitter’s counts, and that almost universally boosts power in the long run. Even without it, though, Markakis is hitting a neat .301/.361/.398, keeping himself very useful as a table-setter in the power-happy Orioles lineup.
- Speaking of lead-off hitters, let’s get more traditional. This is a tale of twospeedsters. Both had their offensive chops questioned. Both were given full-time jobs to open the season, with playoff hopefuls, without real safety nets. One is doing an admirable triple-speed high-wire walk. The other has plumb fallen off the wire.I’m speaking, of course, of Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton. Gordon, the success story, came into 2014 with pushing 700 brutal plate appearances in MLB under his belt. He earned the Dodgers’ second-base job mostly by default.Gordon has swung less (45.7 percent; 50.4 previously) and made contact more (87.7 percent, up from 85.3), leading to a perfectly acceptable 22 strikeouts in 141 plate appearances. He’s only walked six times, which is alarming, but he’s stolen 21 bases in 24 tries, so when he gets on base, he’s making the most of it. His real skill set will come better into view once he stops hitting .400 on balls in play, but with his speed (18 of his 45 hits have not left the infield, including one double), his BABIP might not come down all that much. On pace for 94.5 stolen bases, he’s as exciting as any player in baseball, just now.
Billy Hamilton has had no such luck. Maybe fast, light-hitting guys like this just need longer adjustment periods, but Hamilton’s early returns are ugly. He’s losing his grip on the everyday job, batting .242 with a .277 on-base percentage so far. A week or so into the season, I asked the hosts of Effectively Wild how long Hamilton could stay in the lineup with a .280 OBP. Their estimate, and mine, was much higher than 104 plate appearances. None of us, though, was counting on Hamilton having been caught five time in 16 attempted steals. Hamilton is in danger of becoming a full-time pinch-runner, and with 19 strikeouts against four walks in those 104 PA, he’s not making a strong case for having simply been unlucky.
- Starlin Castro belted a home run last night, his fifth of the season. Castro is among baseball’s most frustrating hitters, and I’ll have to give him a longer treatment on a different occasion. For now, I just want to point out one positive thing: Castro is starting to get his lower half under control.I don’t know if any non-pitcher I’ve ever seen has had a stride pattern and general lower-half mechanic as disjointed and inconsistent as Castro’s. At various times within even this season, he has been guilty of letting his front hip leak out far too soon; lunging with his body across the plate and his legs in no position to create leverage; and simply overstriding. He’s a mess more often than he isn’t, from the waist down.On the homer last night, though, and on several pitches I’ve seen this season, it was clear that Castro is starting to fix that problem. He’s gotten slightly more upright in his setup this year, is striding less, gets his foot down while his hips are still back and stays in a straight line. Those swings are still too rare, but they’re damn promising. He needs to keep working on the syncing of his whole body, but the small strides he’s made are already allowing him to tap his physical gifts better.
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