Braves Hitters Should Heed Willie’s Advice


I know this sounds over simplified but the answer to the Braves’ offensive woes comes down to listening and learning from Wee Willie Keeler. Keeler played before the “modern era” of course but he was some kind of hitter picking up two batting titles, 200 or more hits in eight straight years and a 44-game hitting streak in 1897.  He hit 300+ in 13 straight seasons and a career mark of .345. The man most folks think of as the epitome of a hitter – Ted Williams – said of Keeler, “He may have been small in size but he was huge with the bat.” If he’s good enough for Teddy Baseball he’s a source worth listening too, and listening – or reading – his advice doesn’t take long.  Ask to write a treatise on hitting Keeler reported said, “I already did. I keep my eyes clear and I hit ‘em where they ain’t.”

Keeler really gave two classic piece of hitting advice and Braves hitters would do well to heed them.

"“Learn what pitch you can hit good; then wait for that pitch” and“Hit em where they ain’t.”"

Unfortunately most of the Braves aren’t doing either very well this year. I say most because Brian McCann has been a beast with the bat and is excluded from that generalization. Martin Prado was doing well before his injury and I cut Freddie Freeman some slack because he’s a rookie and seems to be getting a handle on those things. Other than that and Chipper Jones hitting with RISP, everyone looks to have forgotten those basics. There have been games where everything clicked for the offense of course but mostly we score too few runs with too few hits from too few hitters keeping our pitchers constantly in high stress situations. That’s why Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty and the rest have so many appearances and are tired so early.

A while back I posted that our first swing, pitches per at bat and strike out rate were roughly that of last year’s final team totals. I was challenged on that by a couple of folks so I checked again in more detail. When I looked closer at last year’s early season stats I could see how they arrived at their point. Last year’s final totals were heavily weighted towards the team we had at the end of the year.  In other words we were not this offensively challenged at this point last year; at first glance anyway. At face value the traditional numbers for games 1-79 of the last two years makes that difference obvious.

On the surface it seems this year’s group has less patience and plate discipline.  Actually, that’s not the case.

Swinging more? Not really. Producing less? You betcha.

Braves core players-  Brian McCann, Martin Prado, Chipper Jones and Jason Heyward – are, contrary to what many believe, striking out at about the same rate they always do. Where then are the extra Ks coming from? That answer was  simple to isolate but it isn’t a philosophy change or necessarily the problem.

At this time last year Omar Infante had played only 50 games and struck out 26 times. Dan Uggla has played 80 games and K’d 69 times. There’s an increase of 43 Ks over Infante.

Through 75 games last year Yunel Escobar struck out 31 times. Through 77 games this year Alex Gonzales has 66. There’s 35 more making a total of 78 added strike out just by adding those two guys. Without these two guys extra Ks it appears we have 14 less strikeouts from everyone else and if we were paying attention we would have expected that.

A slugger like Uggla was never going to be a patient as the man we sent to Florida for him. The fact is that Uggla has virtually the same as his K rate this year as he had with the Fish. We had to expect that. Gonzales has always been a free swinger. His K rate this year is the same as he had last year in 77 games last year. That’s not a change either. So, the increase in strikeouts are explained and could even have been predicted. Maybe we’re first pitch swinging more often and not being patient enough at the plate? Nope.

The numbers say that Gonzales first pitch numbers are up about 7%, Heyward 6% and Uggla 5%. I’d suggested though I haven’t analyzed these guys, that they are feeing the pressure of an under performing offense – and their personal numbers – and trying to make up for it.  The rest of the team are all within 3% of last year and the + or – mix is pretty even.

The number of pitches seen per at bat is down by less than one pitch ever four at bats for everyone except for Uggla and Nate McClouth who are seeing about one less pitch every three at bats. That’s about a pitch a game and isn’t a significant difference.  I won’t bore you with more numbers. Suffice to say our contact percentage and foul ball percentage are not significantly different either. (If you want the spreadsheet I’ll happily send it to you.) The problems isn’t more strike outs, first pitch swinging, not seeing enough pitches or lack of contact.  I know it sounds corny and trite but, the balls we hit are simply turning into outs more often. Stat heads would say our BAbip is way down.

Back to Keeler’s advice, I’m pretty certain these guys know what their pitch is or rather the zone where they can handle a pitch well. Okay maybe not Wilkin Ramirez but you don’t get to hang around in the majors if you don’t.

I’m also fairly sure that even in “The Year of the Pitcher Part Deux” the pitcher’s we haven’t been hitting are not all Cy Young reincarnate. Sure we run into Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay now and then, but we beat them or at worst play well against them. It’s the number three, four, and five starters – some who no one has heard of before- that we can’t hit and other teams do.

While it’s true defenses are smarter and better positioned than ever before, they can’t be in every place covering every option, there are places where they ain’t. In the end it comes down to either poor pitch recognition/selection or poor execution.

It seems to me our hitters haven’t been adjusting to the situation. They won’t move around a bit in the box based on what the pitcher is throwing and try to get him out of his game plan. They seem to say, ‘No sir, I’m standing here and if he beats me he beats me.’ Then they get beaten and tip their hat to the pitcher.

Unless you’re Tony Gwynn or Barry Bonds that strategy gives the pitcher the advantage. The hitters are left to hit a pitcher’s pitch and try to force the wrong pitch to be the right one. We’ve seen this result in strikeouts on an awful pitches, rolling over an outside pitch trying to pull one that can’t be pulled and grounding out or into a double play instead of taking the hit they’re given. Late and close we see hitters go up there trying to hit a home run when a fly ball or single will do. It’s okay to unbutton that top button and go for it once or twice but when you’re down in the count, dial it back, protect the plate and take what you’re given.  As I write this Jason Heyward demonstrated perfectly my point, striking out on a pitch that was never in the zone after swinging so hard the fans in center field felt it. Brian McCann then came up and demonstrated Keeler’s advice perfectly, hitting a little single through the hole that scored two; no unbuttoning the shirt or over anxious chasing of bad pitches, just doing what was needed with what was provided. (To be fair, Heyward had a 12 pitch at bat that turned into a walk the next inning but the bases weren’t loaded at the time so no leverage situation and less pressure to produce. That at bat the inning before would have been golden.) Two final points on the whole situation.

1) I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think the player mix in this lineup is wrong. Everyone can give examples of teams with a roster full of good players who didn’t play well enough together to win.  Orlando Cabrera was never as good a hitter or shortstop as Nomar Garciaparra, yet when he arrived and Nomar left the Red Sox won; addition by subtraction. We did this in the Escobar trade last year. Their respective players put up similar numbers after the trade but we were better all around because of it.  I think we’re in that kind of situation now. We need to change the mix and to make that change good players will have to leave. Who that may or should be is for another time, but a change is needed.

2) I’ve said before that the hitting coach can’t play the game for them. I didn’t blame Terry Pendleton last year and initially held back from criticism of Larry Parrish.  The hitting coach can and should however remind player the right way to approach an at bat and that the team needs certain skills from them. When they they don’t do this over a period of time, the coach should sit them down in front of the video and point out when that didn’t happen and help them understand why. The coach is there to do more than just be available if they want to talk. Maybe Parrish has done this. If he has, the hitters obviously aren’t responding so perhaps the voice needs to be changed to someone they will listen too.

I know we’re 10 games over .500 and in second place 5 games back in the lost column. It’s not a time when coaching changes are generally made or starting players moved. But we’re are at the midway point in the season and should have rounded into some kind of offensive form by now. Would you rather wait until we’re 10 games back to change things?