One of the truisms in baseball has always been that it’s easier to hit the straight ball than the one that moves.
As the Phillies have struggled to score runs this season, much of their inability to pile up crooked numbers has been due to their inability to hit the fastball. It’s been frustrating to watch and certainly, for the players, the frustration has to be even greater. Hitting a fastball is something every hitter has been trained to do since the days they were first able to grip a bat.
So why has it been such a chore for the Phillies? Well, when you’re not looking for it, those high velocity fastballs can be quite the prickly pear.
Prior to last night’s NFL-like 13-7 win by the Phils over the Mets, manager Gabe Kapler said the Phillies were going to change their offensive approach (quotes via The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Matt Breen), a move that was long overdue.
“If you talk to our players or any players, for that matter, they’ll tell you the same. One thing we’ve toyed with is thinking about looking for specific pitches in counts and I think there’s some value to it. But to simplify things right now, I think we get on the fastball, we stay on the fastball, we never come off it and we look to not miss our pitch.”
“We know that hanging breaking balls, you don’t have to sit on, you don’t have to look for them or try to hit them, they sit up there, they spin, you can be on the fastball and blister a breaking ball,” Kapler said.
Further down in Matt’s piece is what seems to be the key to everything we’ve seen this season with this struggling offense.
They are told to be aggressive on pitches that are thrown in the zones identified by the coaching staff as a spot where a specific hitter would have success. The hitter is to be passive on pitches that are not thrown in those zones. The goal is to extend at-bats, drive up pitch counts, and force a tiring pitcher into a mistake.
With that instruction comes loads of information. Scott Kingery, one of the few hitters who has not regressed this season, said that his improvement this year stemmed from thinking less. He overthought every at-bat last season and struggled mightily with his new approach. He returned this year to the aggressive, freer mentality he had in the minor leagues and has been one of the team’s best hitters.
When a hitter is at the plate and is looking for pitches in certain zones, you’re not looking for certain pitch-types. And if you’re not looking for a fastball early in a count when a cookie is thrown, you’re going to be hesitant and either be late on the swing or let it go by entirely.
How many times have we seen Phillies hitters take fastballs right down the middle this season? How many times have we seen them swing through them? Sure, players will get fooled on breaking pitches if they’re hunting fastballs, but making a pitcher throw breaking pitches also requires that pitcher to be able to throw that breaking ball for strikes, which is harder to do.
The bottom line is, it’s inexcusable for an offense to be as inept at hitting fastballs as Phillies hitters have been this season. Going into last night’s game, they had a .425 slugging percentage against fastballs, tied for 5th-worst in MLB, and their .259 batting average was 6th-worst.
Bryce Harper’s struggles against the fastball have been particularly notable. His .477 slugging percentage on fastballs is tied for 89th out of 143 MLB hitters with at least 1000 swings this year, and his .271 batting average ranked 100th. However last night, he ripped two doubles to the opposite field on 92 mph fastballs.
Is the more aggressive approach stressed by Kapler before last night’s game the reason they exploded for 13 runs? Maybe, maybe not. We need more than a one-game sample size for an answer to that question. But it’s obvious what they had been doing wasn’t working, and the big question is why it took so long for these changes to be implemented. Why did it take so long to simplify their approach, especially when the problems with the fastball were so obvious? Certainly the Phils aren’t going to score 13 runs every night from here on out, but it was clear their passive approach to hitting wasn’t producing the desired results.
Pitchers have been attacking Phils hitters with fastballs all season. As a team, 53.7% of the pitches they’ve seen are fastballs, so it makes sense that a change of approach to hit those pitches was required. And, as teams adjust and throw fewer fastballs, perhaps the team’s approach will have to revert to what it once was.
Hitting coach John Mallee and the analytics department has an idea of what is the proper approach to hitting should be, but it’s important not to be wedded to preconceived ideas, and it’s important to work within a player’s comfort zone. Sometimes, a little old school is required and, in this case, that means focusing on the one thing all Major League hitters should be able to do.
Hitting the fastball.