The Thing Justin Smoak Has To Fix

Dave · April 23, 2012 at 5:51 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Since it’s an off day, and Jeff decided to write about Jesus Montero, I figured I should tackle Justin Smoak. After all, heading into this season, he was really the make or break guy on offense. We’re pretty confident that Dustin Ackley is going to develop into a good player. We think Jesus Montero might, but we were pretty sure that he was going to have some struggles this year and probably wasn’t ready to be a major offensive force. If this offense was going to take a big step forward this year, though, it was probably going to be because Justin Smoak finally started to hit like the guy he was expected to be.

Instead of taking a step forward, he’s actually showing signs of going the wrong way. He’s hitting just .203/.242/.322, hasn’t shown any real signs of improving his weaknesses, and has stopped drawing walks as well. It’s only 62 plate appearances, and you shouldn’t read too much into any kind of early season performance, but Smoak’s the guy with the most to prove this year, and right now, he’s not proving to anyone that his previous struggles were a thing of the past.

In fact, Smoak hasn’t made any noticeable adjustments at the plate that I have been able to pick up on. Throughout his big league career, he’s essentially had one serious flaw; he doesn’t make nearly enough contact for a guy with average power. The walks and doubles first baseman can be a good player, but they generally have to compensate for their lack of home runs by hitting for a high average, and the only way for a slow guy with moderate power to keep his average up is to make an awful lot of contact. Smoak has always struggled to make enough contact to make this skillset work, and he’s been even worse than usual through the season’s first couple of weeks.

In his brief debut in 2010, Smoak made contact 77.6% of the time he swung the bat. Last year, that fell to 75.4%. This year, that’s down to 71.3%. You can be a good hitter with a contact rate that low (Josh Hamilton also has a 71.3% contact rate this year, for instance), but you better be able to hit the ball really, really far when you do make contact. Smoak just doesn’t have that kind of thump, so he needs to put the bat on the ball more often in order to be useful. He probably needs to be more in the 80-85% range in order to make his skillset work.

Of course, it’s not just as simple as to tell Smoak to stop swinging and missing so often. If it was simply a directive that he could follow, this would be easy to fix. The low contact rate, though, is a symptom of the problem – the real issue is that he simply hasn’t learned how to hit anything that isn’t a fastball.

Thanks to the magic of Pitch F/x data and the tools available from TexasLeaguers.com, we can look at how Smoak is faring against all different types of pitches. The classification system isn’t great at distinguishing between fastball types (four seam, two seam, cutter, etc…), but is generally pretty solid at identifying whether a pitch is a fastball, a slider, a curve, or a change. For this exercise, I’ve combined all the fastball types into one category. Here’s how Smoak is doing versus the four main pitch types:


Type Count Frequency Strike Swing Whiff Foul In Play
FA 102 52% 63% 42% 3% 17% 23%
SL 33 17% 64% 39% 24% 9% 6%
CH 32 16% 63% 41% 16% 3% 22%
CU 29 15% 62% 38% 24% 7% 7%

Smoak has been thrown about a 50-50 mix of fastballs and off-speed stuff, and there’s not a ton of variance in how often he swings at them. But look at those whiff rates – 3% against fastballs, 16% against change-ups, and 24% each on sliders and curves. If you throw Smoak a fastball, he’s almost certainly going to hit it (though he also has a good chance of hitting it foul), but if you toss something soft up there, you stand a really good chance of having him swing right through it.

I mean, look at the slider break down. He’s seen 33 of them and put two of them in play. If you click through to the link, look at the two charts for pitch locations on swings versus takes – he’s swung at every low-but-down-the-middle slider he’s seen this year. He’s managed to lay off a lot of the ones down-and-in and several of the down-and-away sliders, but if you throw it over the plate but low, he’s chasing it. And he can’t hit that pitch.

It’s even worse with change-ups. Here’s the plot of change-ups he’s swung at so far this year.

Four times, a pitcher has thrown a change-up low enough to nearly hit the ground and Smoak has swung anyway. He did manage to lay off a low change-up once, so I guess we’ll give him credit for that, but this is still an area where he regularly swings at pitches he has no chance of touching.

Now, compare that to the chart of four seam fastballs he’s swung at this year.

It’s hard to believe this is the same guy – when a pitcher has thrown him a four seam fastball and he’s chosen to swing, it has almost always been in the strike zone. He’s not just passively staring at strikes, either, as he’s swung at a great majority of the four seam fastballs that have been thrown in the strike zone. And remember, he’s only swung and missed at two of the 55 four-seam fastballs (as categorized by Pitch F/x, anyway) he’s seen this year.

Against the fastball, Smoak has been able to correctly identify whether the pitch is a ball or strike, recognize whether or not he should swing, and almost always put the bat on the ball when he does. Against non-fastballs, though, Smoak is as lost as an eight-year-old. If you want to get him out, you just throw something over the plate but breaking down and out of the zone, and odds are good that he’s going to swing right over the top of it.

This kind of problem is generally referred to as plate discipline, but in this case, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it was more pitch recognition. Smoak doesn’t have the kind of swing-at-anything approach that suggests that he just doesn’t understand that getting into good hitters counts is the best way to get pitches to drive, but he simply seems unable to recognize that certain pitches that start off in the strike zone aren’t going to stay there after he starts to swing at them.

If I knew how to fix this, I’d be a Major League hitting coach and I’d make a lot of money. For all we know, it might not even be fixable. But if Smoak is ever going to turn into the hitter the Mariners are hoping for, they’re going to have to figure out how to mitigate his weaknesses against off-speed pitches down and out of the zone, because right now, he’s seeing a steady diet of sliders and change-ups down at his feet and he just can’t do anything with them. The easy answer is to stop swinging at those pitches, but the solution is almost certainly more complicated than that. The Mariners just have to hope they can figure out what it is and get Smoak to implement the changes. Right now, this version is just too easy to pitch to.

Comments

47 Responses to “The Thing Justin Smoak Has To Fix”

  1. bookbook on April 23rd, 2012 6:05 pm

    Thanks for this article. Very useful (and discouraging).

    I’m looking forward to hearing next off-day about why Ackley hasn’t been acting like the above-average hitter we’ve been hoping for.,,

  2. Nate on April 23rd, 2012 6:05 pm

    Thanks for that Dave, I hope he starts making progress in this area soon.

    Also, if you get bored on a rainy day or something, I’d love to see this type of analysis for other hitters. (seager, saunders, figgy, maybe even wells, etc.)

  3. Gregory on April 23rd, 2012 6:19 pm

    Is there any base in thinking wedge has a good amount to do with the generally shoddy plate discipline our team has? Though that isn’t particularly Smoak’s problem, as stated here.

  4. Klatz on April 23rd, 2012 6:51 pm

    His line is worse than it should be if you believe that his low BABIP (at .256) should normalize to a more respectable .280-.300. I don’t expect Smoak’s BABIP to be above .300 as a slow guy but his minor league numbers aren’t as bad as .256.

    Luck dragons don’t address his inability to hit bending balls. But if you look at his 2011 data, does it say the same thing. Looking at the Fangraph’s weighted pitch values/100, SL are at .75 last year compared to a .37 for four-seams. This year sliders are a -.22 compared to four-seams at 1.55. Now am I understanding pitch values correctly for hitters on Fangraphs?

  5. Snake Hippo on April 23rd, 2012 7:27 pm

    Somebody call Edgar

  6. stevemotivateir on April 23rd, 2012 8:12 pm

    @Gregory

    It’s ultimately up to the individual. The manager can bark about being more aggressive all he wants. Smart hitters will exercise better discipline. It really appears that they’re generally not thinking for themselves and just hackin’ away though, eh?! Whatever/whoever it is, it isn’t working.

  7. IwearMsHats on April 23rd, 2012 8:35 pm

    I always know that if he swings at a breaking ball he’ll swing over the top of it, and I cannot express my rage when he fulfills my prophecy.

  8. Keo on April 23rd, 2012 8:45 pm

    Sounds like Smoak has got fouling fastballs on the brain:

    “No, the leg is fine. There is no excuse there,” said Smoak, whose average has dropped to .203 through 15 games. “It’s just putting together good at-bats and looking for my pitch to hit, and not just swinging at everything up there.

    “Right now, I feel like if I see a fastball, I’m swinging, no matter where it’s at, instead of waiting for my pitch in my zone. Of course you’re out there hunting fastballs, but you can’t swing at all of them, and I feel like I’ve been doing that. I just have to work on some things and get it going from there.”

    I guess he would benefit from a renewed focus on pitch recognition overall.

  9. gnaztee on April 23rd, 2012 9:05 pm

    @Keo

    This is really the key. Smoak is right on in what he’s talking about. Making sure you only swing at fastballs in the zone doesn’t lead to success, the hitter has to swing at pitches in his part of the zone. If he’s swinging at most fastballs in the zone, it only makes sense that he’s going to swing at breaking balls that start out looking like fastballs in the zone.

    I wouldn’t necessarily expect this to change, as professional baseball coaches (hell, most baseball coaches) are terrible at designing any kind of practice that addresses pitch recognition. Look at BP: fastball after fastball, same speed, slightly different locations. Occasionally a breaking ball round, but never several rounds of a full mix of pitches, forcing the hitter to pick his pitch out of the mix and drive it.

  10. Boy9988 on April 23rd, 2012 9:11 pm

    @bookbook

    Stop worrying about Dustin Ackley. These are Dustin Ackley’s batting lines for April and May for 2010 and 2011

    2010(AA):
    April -.147/.289/.227
    May -.303/.475/.447

    2011(AAA):
    April -.211/.342/.305
    May -.355/.456/.605
    (NOTE: I never found the Sacrifice numbers, so that OBP is off)

    Ackley is just a slow starter.

  11. PackBob on April 23rd, 2012 9:21 pm

    It would be interesting to compare this data to Smoak’s hot start last year. Was he laying off non-fastballs? Or was he just hitting and driving fastballs better?

  12. SteveDavey on April 23rd, 2012 9:24 pm

    This was a really interesting read. I’ve never seen anything like this on success versus pitch type. It is discouraging to see the results.

    Can any of this be attributed to Eric Wedge and his desire to have the players have “aggressive” at bats? To me this approach seems to discourage plate discipline in favor of being aggressive and swinging more often.

  13. Westside guy on April 23rd, 2012 10:05 pm

    Stop worrying about Dustin Ackley

    Except Ackley is showing something of the same tendencies as the rest of these hackers. Notice anything about the slash lines you posted? Even when he didn’t hit early on, he walked – his OBP was significantly higher than his average. Now compare that to what he’s done so far this year:

    .242/.286/.333

    If it was Olivo, I’d say great – but for Ackley that’s not a lot of walking.

    It’s not such a small sample size when you see nine guys all doing it. I believe there’s a systemic problem here.

  14. make_dave_proud on April 23rd, 2012 10:05 pm

    Sounds like Smoak would easily qualify for the Pedro Cerrano All-Stars. http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/the-pedro-cerrano-all-stars/

  15. Boy9988 on April 23rd, 2012 10:30 pm

    @Westside

    Remember that this is the major leagues and most pitchers can hit the strike zone at will. Minor league pitchers cant always. The slow starts were all in the minors where he face inferior pitching. Though I admit, I don’t like the trend the whole team is taking in the swing at everything approach.

  16. Paul Covert on April 23rd, 2012 11:15 pm

    Dave: Thanks, good read– that answers the #1 question that’s been on my mind for the M’s this year.

    Keo and gnaztee (re. batting practice technique): If true– I’m speaking as an outsider to the game here– that both disappoints and perplexes me (that batting coaches wouldn’t normally be good at “designing any kind of practice that addresses pitch recognition”).

    My guess is that perhaps it’s not perceived as important; it seems like one often hears of guys working on their stance and swing, but rarely on their pitch-recognition skills. But– especially given the data that Dave shows here– it would seem that there’s at least seven-figure $ on the table here, maybe eight (and that’s just for one player).

    (“Batting Instruction: The Next Great Market Inefficiency”?) :-)

  17. bookbook on April 23rd, 2012 11:37 pm

    I’ve always wondered about ways to combat the slow starter phenomenon. Shouldn’t you be trying to have your slow start in March? Hire AAAA guys to pitch to you as if their careers depended on it, and work out your slump then?

  18. vj on April 24th, 2012 12:49 am

    Dave, great article. I have a questions: Over on LL, someone posted a Fanpost comparing the line drive rates to BABIP. It suggests that Smoak has been ridiculously unlucky and several other M’s have had bad luck as well. What do you think of that analysis?

  19. MrZDevotee on April 24th, 2012 12:57 am

    The irony is that he also appears to be a victim of his own success at hitting fastballs… And he almost says as much in the quotes someone listed above. He’s swinging at EVERY fastball near the zone, and he’s made contact with all but one. I’m guessing a good portion of those fastballs were well located, and hence he made contact with a not very good (for a batter’s success) pitch.

    This sort of hints at– yes– Wedge’s aggressiveness approach. Because not only is he swinging and missing MORE offspeed/bent stuff, but he’s ALSO swinging and hitting MORE fastballs. This seems to be a problem when you add Dave’s math to the equation– that he’s never been very good at hitting those non-fastball pitches, so our team emphasized approach would seem to make him a WORSE hitter than he’s typically been (see: low BABIP, which is almost solely, perhaps, because he’s hitting every fastball thrown to him, regardless of location).

    In one instance at least, it would seem that one guy on the team would benefit from being WAY LESS aggressive. He’d be a better hitter, statistically if he simply only swung at fastballs, and he was WAY MORE choosier about which fastballs.

    Will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    (GREAT read Dave, thanks for this posting!)

  20. moocow on April 24th, 2012 1:04 am

    I see a lot of fans jump down a player’s throat for swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, like it’s a matter of simply having the discipline to not swing at those pitches. What I think people forget is that those pitches are DESIGNED to fool hitters into swinging at them.

    Just because it’s obvious to those of us sitting on our sofas at home that that slider off the outside corner is clearly a ball, it is not at all clear to the hitter until the ball has passed a certain point in its trajectory.

    How early a hitter can recognize that a pitch is on a trajectory to a point in or outside the strike zone, and how quickly he can adjust given that knowledge (swing or not swing), I believe are somewhat innate hitter skills. Just like you can’t teach bat speed to a hitter, it is hard if not impossible to speed up a player’s pitch recognition or reaction speeds.

    You may be able to teach a hitter with quick recognition skills to lay off bad pitches he formerly wanted to offer at, but I don’t think you can ever teach a hitter with slow recognition skills to lay off that good slider. That’s why you can have guys with super quick bat speed (power) but awful contact rates (Wily Mo?). They just don’t know it’s going to be a ball until after they’ve committed to swinging at it.

  21. Brantid on April 24th, 2012 3:34 am

    Thanks for the article. If this trend holds up, are we talking about someone that was rushed through the minors? Or put another way, someone that needs more seasoning in the minors? Because as I read the article, I kept having a feeling of deja vu to numerous articles I’ve read about minor league prospects having to “figure out” how to hit the off speed stuff in the minors.

    While it can be done, the majors is a tough spot to learn.

  22. CCW on April 24th, 2012 7:32 am

    I’ve heard through the grapevine that scouts think Smoak’s swing is too long. This scouting observation would appear to match the empirical data. He can’t hit bendy stuff because he’s sitting fastball and his swing is too long to adapt it on the fly. Has anyone else heard this or something similar.

  23. Paul B on April 24th, 2012 7:44 am

    I was wondering what was wrong. Sometimes he looks good, and other times he looks lost up there.

  24. eponymous coward on April 24th, 2012 7:45 am

    Thanks for the article. If this trend holds up, are we talking about someone that was rushed through the minors? Or put another way, someone that needs more seasoning in the minors?

    Smoak is 25, has had almost 1000 plate appearances in MLB, and over 1700 plate appearances in pro ball.

    That’s not “rushing”, unless he’s never going to be good. The worse a player you are, the more time you spend in the minors…

  25. FELIXisKING on April 24th, 2012 8:23 am

    I’ve been comparing him to Olivo and Ryan against the off-speed stuff this year. I can’t tell you how many times each of those three guys has tried to yank a breaking pitch that’s on the outter half and swung completely through it. In Olivo’s case, he rolls them over often but yeah, Smoak generally fans at them.

  26. spankystout on April 24th, 2012 8:49 am

    I found it confusing/enraging when the Angel’s announcers were astounded that Pujols liked to crank up the pitching machine as fast as it can go, and to throw him nasty sliders….you mean to tell me that all ML players DON’T practice hitting 95MPH and breaking stuff?!?!

  27. MikeMLT on April 24th, 2012 9:00 am

    PackBob, TexasLeaguers is a very cool site. Looking between April 1 and June 24 last year it appears Smoak was not whiffing so much at off speed stuff.

    Sliders ’12 24% whiff – Sliders ’11 10.8% whiff
    Change ’12 16% whiff – Change ’11 13.8% whiff
    Curve ’12 24% whiff – Curver ’11 14.2% whiff

  28. furlong on April 24th, 2012 9:11 am

    Smoak probably should moved out of the four hole and down the lineup away. He is not a graceful player and appears awkward at times in fact he is a bit of a clod hopper.

  29. GripS on April 24th, 2012 9:46 am

    Smoak has had a bit of time to prove he can play and so far he’s failing. The change up K’s can be seen coming from a mile away when he has 2 strikes. I remember having confidence in his ability to hit at the beginning of the season last year. That’s long gone now. His swing is slow, long and loopy.

  30. seattlesonsofbaseball on April 24th, 2012 10:31 am

    Has anyone thought that maybe Smoak should STOP being a switch hitter?!?!?! Maybe he should focus on hitting from the side he’s most comfortable at instead of trying to get time at both sides of the plate. Maybe if his confidence and pitch recognition gets better he can try going back to switch hitting, but I always felt only a few guys could successfully be switch hitters full time, and I have my doubts that Smoak can.

  31. Mariners35 on April 24th, 2012 11:12 am

    Perhaps he needs to do the same rubberbands-trick that Saunders was doing in the offseason, to shorten his swing.

    Or perhaps someone needs to print this article out and hand it to the hitting coach, the same way someone printed out the Felix article a few years ago for the pitching coach…

  32. JoshJones on April 24th, 2012 11:22 am

    I’m not ready to worry just yet. Wedge is known for being a agressive coach offensively. Our whole team has a lack of plate discipline. It’s such a small sample size. Hes hitting .203 right now in 59AB’s. He could go 3-4 tonight and he would hitting .286….Kyle Lohse is the best pitcher in baseball right now and Albert Pujols hasn’t even hit a homerun yet. Too early to draw conclusions…But i do agree with you Dave that if this continues for the next month..Then there is a problem.

  33. philosofool on April 24th, 2012 11:32 am

    “Remember that this is the major leagues and most pitchers can hit the strike zone at will.”

    There were 9078 3-0 counts last year and 2712 resulted in a non-intentional BB on the fourth pitch. Even when pitchers are trying their best to hit the zone, they hit it just under 71% of the time. You could find a reason to two to think that not all of those were really meant to be in the zone, but you have to admit that pitchers will only hit the zone about 75% of the time in the most favorable circumstance for hitting it.

  34. midlandtx on April 24th, 2012 11:36 am

    So what is going on in the dugout/clubhouse from a coaching perspective? Who is driving this bus?

    This Larry Stone story from November 2010 declares “Chris Chambliss is only member of new Seattle coaching staff with no ties to manager Eric Wedge or the Mariners.”

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/mariners/2013348256_mari05.html
    Does this imply some sort of philosophical difference, or not? Do Chambliss and Wedge agree on this hacktastic approach, or is Chris privately pulling out his hair?

    It would be criminal if this coaching staff ingrained terrible hitting habits in such young and promising players. It’s bad enough they consider Olivo a leader, even if it’s more in the clubhouse than on the field or at the plate.

  35. eponymous coward on April 24th, 2012 11:51 am

    Has anyone thought that maybe Smoak should STOP being a switch hitter?!?!?!

    MLB and 1700 appearances in pro ball (plus college time) is not really the time to be going “whoops! time to completely change which hand I hit with!”, and not be a complete bust as far as the M’s are concerned. It’s fairly likely that would trash Smoak’s career in MLB.

  36. msfanmike on April 24th, 2012 11:52 am

    Great post Dave. The quantifiable data matches the “eyeball” test, too. There isn’t anything that Smoak appears to do ‘quickly.’ Fast-twitch slow-twitch muscles type of thing – of which my mind is too feable to explain with any level of intelligence.

    Smoak has plenty of bat speed, but there is a lag/pull to it and it (like everything else he appears to do), it does not occur very quickly. As such, he is probably easier to fool. MLB pitchers and scouts are paid a lot of money to figure out how best to fool him, and they have in large part.

    Smoak came to camp in better shape, but it didn’t quicken his trunk turn or shorten his swing path or provide him with the extra millisecond of time he needs to recognize (and not swing at) pitches that he cannot hit well or drive with any consistency. He probably creams every 80 mph reaction time fastball in BP, though.

    A slow-twitch guy in a fast-twitch world needs to hit bombs or needs to become the type of hitter that matches his skillset. The ‘edict’ that seems to have resonated for this team throughout all organizational levels – further compounded by being the ‘cleanup’ hitter – is not currently helping him.

    Smoaks best approach would probably be to hit the ball the other way and up the middle – and to drive the occasional mistake pitch. This is how Montero hits. He gets it. He will be a real good hitter someday.

    Smoak is probably better suited for the 6-hole – even in this lineup. He could still end up being a fairly productive player on an above average team, but his style will need to match his tools/makeup … and it currently does not.

  37. 300ZXNA on April 24th, 2012 12:00 pm

    In the bigger picture, I am worried that Wedge is ‘breaking’ our hitters by preaching aggression all the time. Ackley and Smoaks plummeting walks are alarming.

    As far as the ‘long swing’ thing, it seems like that a reason that scouting types pull out any time a player has a low batting average. Remember when Casey Kotchman was failing, and people said his swing was too long? Fast forward a year and he was hitting the snot out of the ball. The only difference appeared to be BABIP induced luck.

    Hitting is such a complicated thing that if one is having a hard time hitting breaking pitches, it seems that it would be a complex and multifactorial issue.

  38. 117winssometime on April 24th, 2012 12:42 pm

    Average power? I’m not surprised to hear that but wasn’t Smoak the prospect supposed to be some kind of power savant? Did he just not develop as expected? Because I didn’t think at the time of the trade that Smoak was supposed to have the upside of John Olerud without the defense. I don’t think the M’s would have traded Lee for a package of middling prospects centered around Yonder Alonso instead of Jesus Montero.

  39. Paul B on April 24th, 2012 12:50 pm

    Smoak has today off, I assume his leg is still bothering him.

    Kind of an odd lineup today.

  40. seattlesonsofbaseball on April 24th, 2012 1:42 pm

    eponymous, why do you state that I think he should completely switch what hand he hits with? He hits from both sides, not just one side. You’re not asking him to change his whole game, just focus on one side of the plate, preferably the side he’s most comfortable and confident on, which I believe he has stated is from the right side of the plate. Instead of trying to do two different batting practices, one from each side, I’d like to see him focus on mastering one. I’d hate to have a guy who batted like a “jack of all trades” but “master of none”.

  41. tres_arboles on April 24th, 2012 3:10 pm

    “Look at BP: fastball after fastball, same speed, slightly different locations. Occasionally a breaking ball round, but never several rounds of a full mix of pitches, forcing the hitter to pick his pitch out of the mix and drive it.”

    BP is designed to work on the ability to do specific things on contact, not necessarily work the ability to make contact on specific types of pitches. At minor league ST, you can typically hear the BP pitcher calling out a specific cadence for the batter, “get on, hit behind (or hit-and-run), sac fly, drive him in, for the fences” etc, in sequence. If a hitter is having a hard time with pitch recognition, or hitting off-speed or breaking stuff, it’s pretty much up to the batter to work on that stuff on his own, not during BP.

  42. Lantern on April 24th, 2012 3:31 pm

    What are the league averages for these numbers? I think it is far more common for players to swing and miss on off speed pitches. What is normal? Are Smoaks numbers even an anomaly? I searched the Texas Leaguer link and couldn’t find any league average for hitters…

  43. gnaztee on April 24th, 2012 3:40 pm

    “BP is designed to work on the ability to do specific things on contact, not necessarily work the ability to make contact on specific types of pitches. At minor league ST, you can typically hear the BP pitcher calling out a specific cadence for the batter, “get on, hit behind (or hit-and-run), sac fly, drive him in, for the fences” etc, in sequence. If a hitter is having a hard time with pitch recognition, or hitting off-speed or breaking stuff, it’s pretty much up to the batter to work on that stuff on his own, not during BP.”

    Actually, this makes my point. You’re looking at this backwards. A batter cannot “work on that stuff on his own.” To practice pitch recognition, you need a pitcher. They have this opportunity every single day in BP, but nobody takes advantage of it. It’s not difficult to ‘hit behind’ or ‘drive him in’ when it’s the same BP fastball every time. 99% of BP in H.S., college and pro baseball is a feel good session for the hitters, with no real benefit.

    Hitting is timing and pitch recognition. A good swing without these is a crappy hitter. A bad swing that’s on time and never swings at bad pitches will produce. A good swing that is on time and swings at good pitches is a good hitter.

    A typical batting practice is focused on the swing, something which can be done on the player’s own time off a tee in the cage. Timing isn’t practiced. If it was, BP wouldn’t be the same speed over and over again. Pitch recognition isn’t practiced. If it was, BP wouldn’t be the same pitch over and over again.

    Does the swing matter? Of course. A better swing can equal more power, higher likelihood of barrel contact when slightly off time, and more time to recognize the pitch (if the swing is shorter). However, all of these should be practiced with a ball on a tee, as the focus is on mechanics, not timing. If a hitter is seeing live pitches, he’s worried about timing, not his swing (except in the case of a standard BP, where the pitch is consistent enough to partially think about the swing, but also requires a degree of timing and pitch recognition as well)

    One more thing to think about: how many reps does a hitter get to practice pitch recognition every day? Four ABs, average of three pitches, that’s only 12 reps a day. If the BP pitcher mixed up pitches during rounds every day, the hitter could triple or even quadruple that number.

  44. gnaztee on April 24th, 2012 3:49 pm

    “Keo and gnaztee (re. batting practice technique): If true– I’m speaking as an outsider to the game here– that both disappoints and perplexes me (that batting coaches wouldn’t normally be good at “designing any kind of practice that addresses pitch recognition”).
    My guess is that perhaps it’s not perceived as important; it seems like one often hears of guys working on their stance and swing, but rarely on their pitch-recognition skills. But– especially given the data that Dave shows here– it would seem that there’s at least seven-figure $ on the table here, maybe eight (and that’s just for one player).
    (“Batting Instruction: The Next Great Market Inefficiency”?) ”

    Paul, you’re right. Whether the inefficiency will ever be capitalized upon is anybody’s guess. I can guarantee it won’t happen in pro ball first. Pro baseball is a glacier of progress in terms of how the game is taught, not just how it’s evaluated (sabr vs. traditional stats, for example). College and high school coaches are much more innovative in this area. Then again, they have to be. They don’t get to draft 50 more guys every year. In pro ball, they can do the same old thing with everybody and if they don’t work out, so what? There will be a new group next year. A lot of big league guys are there in spite of what they’re taught in the minor leagues, not because of it.

    The other reason is not that pitch recognition is perceived as unimportant, but that it requires some creativity to teach. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to teach drill after drill focused on swing mechanics because the results are quick and visible. The reality is they just don’t know how to teach it, and they aren’t willing to change anyway.

  45. eponymous coward on April 24th, 2012 3:52 pm

    You’re not asking him to change his whole game, just focus on one side of the plate

    If you’re having him bat RHB all the time, you’ve just changed how he bats in something like 75% of his plate appearances (since this means he would now be a RHB against RHP).

    Good thing Safeco hates lefty hitters and it’s easy for righties to hit them out to left field, huh? That should help a guy who’s spent 1700 pro plate appearances do something he’s not done in years, right?

    But hey, retraining muscle memory and hand-eye coordination from years of hitting, those should be easy things to add for someone who seems to be struggling with pitch recognition at the MLB level. No problem. Let’s have Smoak solve quadratic equations while he’s batting, while we’re at it. That should really get him on track.

  46. GLS on April 24th, 2012 4:24 pm

    Thanks for posting this. I haven’t read the other comments yet but I’m looking forward to doing so.

  47. thehemogoblin on April 25th, 2012 1:14 pm

    The worst part about missing all those sliders is that Smoak has the platoon advantage against every single one of them, being a switch hitter.

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