Bob Wojnowski, Tony Paul and Chris McCosky discuss the Tigers at the quarter pole of the season. The Detroit News
Detroit – The Tigers were shut out in back-to-back games last week – by the Angels on Thursday and by the Twins Friday. They managed just eight hits in those 18 innings.
But, they also hit 17 balls that left the bat at 98 mph or better – hard-hit balls as categorized by Statcast. Of those, only five were hits.
So, did they stink at the plate, or were they unlucky? A little of both, for sure. Neither the Angels' Felix Pena nor the Twins' Jake Odorizzi are considered Cy Young Award candidates, so better results could be expected.
But, given how many balls were squared up, maybe they should have had better results.
“Hitting is hard,” Tigers catcher Grayson Greiner said. “Pitchers have eight guys helping to get you out. We have nobody helping us hit. It’s the hardest thing to do in sports.”
The truth is, there are more than eight people helping pitchers out. There’s an army of analytics experts who before every game tell them in color-coded detail where each hitter's strengths and weaknesses are. Pitchers come into games knowing not only what pitches are statistically proven to work best in every count, but also what quadrants of the strike zone to attack.
If you have a hole in your swing, and just about every hitter does, pitchers will know right where it is and how to exploit it.
And beyond that, teams use the data to position defenders according how the hitter is going to be pitched to on that night.
The deck is stacked, mightily. So when you see a stat like 17 hard-hit balls and just five hits, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising.
“When you think about it, yeah, some of it is bad luck,” said Tigers’ quality control coach Joe Vavra. “But it’s good positioning on the other team’s part. I went around to the guys and said, just keep your head up. As long as you are squaring the ball and seeing it good, good things will happen.
“But unfortunately, you are hitting it right at people and they are defending you good.”
Two proven hitters
To their credit, the Tigers did slug seven home runs in the three games after the shutout Friday. And, believe it or not, they have the third highest hard-hit rate in the American League (40.7 percent).
But this is a lineup with essentially two proven hitters – Miguel Cabrera and Nick Castellanos. Five of the nine hitters in Ron Gardenhire’s lineup Tuesday were hitting .240 or lower, three of those were hitting .200 or lower.
Two others – Ronny Rodriguez and Brandon Dixon – started the season in Toledo and don’t have a lot of at-bats.
The inexperience shows up in the team’s league-worst chase rate (35.5 percent) and second worst strikeout rate (26.4 percent). They are susceptible to the traps that can be set with good use of analytics.
“When you are playing teams whose pitchers can pitch according to a plan, it’s a big advantage,” Vavra said. “The (heat) maps I’m looking at (of Tigers hitters), there’s a lot of room for them to get people out. When you can match the plan up to those maps, it’s tough hitting.
“If you match a plan, pitch-wise, and you manage to square it up, it’s probably going to be defended according to the plan.”
The Tigers have the same data. They come into games knowing opposing hitters’ hot spots and weak spots and they try to pitch and position accordingly. Some games the plan and pitching match up, other games it does not.
“We’ve had a few days when we haven’t been able to match a plan pitching-wise, and it makes it hard to defend,” Vavra said. “You see you got some room here and you miss that spot.”
Which is what the Tigers pitchers did repeatedly over the weekend in Minnesota against power-hitter C.J. Cron. The heat maps showed he was susceptible to the high fastball, but on Saturday, the Tigers couldn’t get the ball up there and he went 5 for 8 with two home runs and a double.
Finally, with the bases loaded in a 5-3 game on Sunday, Buck Farmer was able to get his 96-mph to the top of the zone and strike out Cron.
On Friday, though, the Tigers overloaded their defense to the right side of second base against switch-hitting Jorge Polanco, who was batting left-handed against Tyson Ross. It was scoreless game at the time and the plan was to pitch Polanco inside and get him to pull the ball into the teeth of the defense.
Instead, Ross left a pitch out over the plate and he rolled it down the vacated third-base line for a two-run double.
“Polanco had been 2 for 20 with runners in scoring position,” Vavra said. “As good as his numbers are overall. He just shortened up his approach and probably said to himself, ‘I’ve been struggling, maybe I’ve been too aggressive, I’m just going to shorten my swing and hit it where it’s pitched.’”
'Getting into guess-mode'
The book on a lot of Tigers hitters, even lately Cabrera, is they struggle with fastballs up in the zone – regardless of velocity. Tigers hitters have seen 53 percent fastballs this season, the third highest rate in the American League.
“We’ve spent a lot of time, I know Lloyd (McClendon, hitting coach) has, analyzing this stuff and seeing what pitchers are doing against our guys,” Vavra said. “I think what’s happening is, our guys are going up there looking for it and they are getting into guess-mode.”
Vavra said McClendon and Gardenhire held a hitters’ meeting before the game Sunday and addressed this issue.
“It was about just staying on the fastball, attack the fastball,” Vavra said. “Stay on the fastball and hit it hard, don’t guess. Even when you guess right, you end up chasing a lot of times because you see it and you are so anxious to hit it and it’s off the plate.”
The Houston Astros, the most productive hitting team in the Major Leagues, put on a nightly clinic in plate discipline. They have the third-lowest chase rate in the American League (29 percent) and second-lowest strikeout rate (19.5). Their walk to strikeout rate is the best in baseball (0.47).
They turned the tables on Matthew Boyd on Monday. It was like they knew his pitch plan and either took and fouled off every borderline pitch. They were able to run his pitch count up early and get him out of the game after four innings.
“The things they’re teaching here in the organization go beyond what guys in a lot of other organizations are teaching," said Astros utility man Tony Kemp in an interview with FanGraphs. "The Astros have a really good grasp of how to approach hitting. From the Dominican Summer League all the way up to Triple-A and to Houston, the numbers speak for themselves. I think it’s about hitting philosophy and the swing.
“The battle isn’t against the name on the back of the jersey, it’s against the baseball that’s coming into the zone. Confidence is everything in this game, and being able to walk up to the plate feeling you have the advantage is huge. What they’re teaching us here helps give you that feeling.”
Gordon Beckham, one of the Tigers few veteran hitters, said one of the keys to solving this whole riddle is to not paralyze yourself with all the data.
“I know it’s out there, but I don’t go into a game, and I don’t think most of us go into a game thinking about where we’re hot and where we’re not,” he said. “Let’s go back to the basics here – you have to make a decision (swing or not to swing) in about point-two seconds.
“At the end of the day, if you’re worried about anything other than the ball, then you are probably behind the eight-ball anyway. It’s not easy and all the information out there now doesn’t make it any easier, but I think too much thought is a bad thing.”
Don’t think, Meat, it can only hurt the ballclub, right?
“I’ve always been of the mindset, if you are off a fastball, then you can’t be on time for it,” Beckham said. “You are going to be late on it. You’ve got to hunt fastballs and hit breaking pitches that are in the zone.”
So easy to say, so bloody hard to do.