There is no one single way to be good at baseball, which is part of why it’s so amazing. Just last week we peeked into the mind of a man with one of the lowest swing rates in baseball when we asked Joey Votto how he does it. And this week? Let’s ask Adrian Beltre.
“I’m probably the opposite,” Beltre laughed when he heard Votto’s name. “I’m thinking swing first and take second. I don’t have that discipline.”
It’s hard to argue with him, but he has been a top-ten all-time third baseman. “It’s probably not the way to do it,” he said with that trademarked smile, “but it has worked for me.”
As much as it seems that he’s changed over his career, Beltre insists that any alterations have been minor. He does remember coming to Boston and being aware of the Green Monster — “I did change a little in Boston because of the wall,” he told me before a game with the Athletics.
There seems to be some evidence here. As the chart below illustrates, Beltre recorded one of the lowest pull rates of his career in his single season with the Red Sox — suggesting that he was avoiding the wall on purpose.
Other than going the other way a bit more in Boston, though, Beltre felt the power explosion once he left Seattle was not due to a change in approach. When prodded, though, he did offer a bit of an explanation. “When I was in Seattle, I came from a different league, first year, I kind of struggled and I was trying to overdo things maybe,” he admitted. “Playing in that field, I felt I had to hit the ball hard, so I was probably over-swinging a little.”
It’s hard to see what over-swinging is like in the face of low power numbers, but if you split his career into before Seattle and after, you get a sense of what it can mean.
|Time Range||K%||swSTR%||Swing %||Reach %||ISO||HR/FB||Pull%||GB/FB|
It’s not only about swinging and reaching and missing more — he did do those things — but it’s also about pulling the ball on the ground more. A little success in Boston just calmed him down, and allowed his experience in the new league to shine through. “It has to do with experience,” Beltre said. “Each year I learn a little bit more about my swing and what the opposite team wants to do with me.”
For example. We started collecting PITCHf/x data in 2007. Ever since then, Beltre has been swinging less at everything — but with a more pronounced decline against breaking and offspeed pitches.
How did an aggressive, swing-first guy learn more patience on these pitch types? By focusing on something he liked. “I noticed that a lot of teams wanted to get me out with the high fastball,” the Rangers third baseman said. “And that’s a good pitch to hit! All you have to do is touch it and it goes. So I learned to look for that pitch, and that helps me to not chase the low breaking ball because it looks too far away.”
Even though teams have fallen back from their high-fastball approach against him recently, Beltre has kept with the adjustment, perhaps because of what it does for him against breaking balls. Watch what focusing on the high pitch has done for his swing rate down in the zone.
There was a second part to this adjustment on breaking balls, though. The first time I talked to Josh Donaldson about hitting, he pointed to the fact that Beltre drops his back knee on breaking balls in order to match the plane of the incoming pitch.
It looks like a mistake when Beltre goes to a knee, but the results tell a different story.
“Ah… It worked a little bit but I don’t like it,” said Beltre of the practice. “I kind of used that before more because I used to chase a lot of breaking balls in the dirt in the minor leagues. What I learned was that when you chase the breaking ball and you pull off, you’re just going to roll it over. So I learned to follow the pitch, so the knee goes down with it. And I’ve been able to hit those pitches better, with more power.”
With the two facets of his approach in tandem, Beltre has gotten much better at hitting curves and sliders. Pitch type values, which measure the outcomes on these pitches in runs created per 100 pitches, show a stark picture.
Beltre shrugs a bit. He does agree that following the pitch is a good practice, but also seems to wish he wouldn’t swing at those pitches sometimes. “Sometimes you shouldn’t swing at those pitches, but if you commit to it already, might as well as do the best you can with that pitch,” he said.
If you watch him drop that knee, you might think back to hitting coaches that talk of shifting your weight to the front leg to take advantage of your power. It’s something we’ve heard Justin Turner (through Marlon Byrd) espouse as a good practice. Others talk of power coming from your base upwards, much like a squat in weight lifting.
“Ground up!” agreed Beltre emphatically. “For most hitters, the power is in the lower half,” he said. “For me it is. When I’m doing okay, the balance is better, even when I drop the back knee.”
There’s another thing that Beltre does differently than everyone else. While other hitters focus on “loading” their hands — listen to Kris Bryant talk about his hands and hips being connected by a rubber band to get a sense of the theory behind it, which holds that you need to “coil” backwards in order to load up on power — Beltre has almost no load at all.
“Almost no load at all,” Beltre agreed. “It’s not something I want to do, it’s just my swing. I’ve never been a guy that loads big.” That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a load at all. It’s just harder to spot. “I have a load of my own, in my wrist, a little cock here, and that’s my load,” he said. “It goes back a little bit but not as far as other people.”
Watch Beltre cock the bat in his hands. That’s his load.
If there’s a struggle when it comes to the mechanics of his swing, it comes from his top hand. “I don’t like to use my top hand,” Beltre said as he shook his head. “I don’t think it’s a good thing. A top-hand swing is a roll over. I want to take the knob to the ball with the bottom hand. Tuck my hands in, and take my knob to the ball and release the barrel.”
In order to combat any top-hand heaviness, Beltre does drills. But not on the tee! “I do flips, I’m not a big fan of the tee because the ball’s not moving,” he said with a grin. “In the game, the ball’s moving all the time.”
If there’s a story to be told about Adrian Beltre’s swing, it’s one about adaptation and self-knowledge. He doesn’t have the perfect swing, or the perfect approach, and he knows it. But with each year comes “more confidence and knowing the league and using the experience” to his advantage. That’s how he used the high fastball to improve his approach against breaking balls, and that’s how he improved his mechanics to better suit the reality of his approach.
It’s working, too. After all, there isn’t anyone in his age bracket who is aging as gracefully right now. “I have to keep up with the young guys, I have to be more savvy,” Beltre said as he showed me one more swing and headed to the cage.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.