Count the Texas Rangers among teams who are tweaking their approach to hitting. That much was clear when I spoke to Chris Woodward during the regular season, and again during the Winter Meetings. In our recent conversation, I asked the 43-year-old manager who stands out as having made the most progress in 2019.
“In my eyes, Willie Calhoun probably made the biggest jump,” said Woodward. “Joey Gallo, as well, before he got hurt. But Willie really, really bought into a lot of things that made him successful. He had different swings for different pitches. He’d go into a game knowing, ‘Is this guy sinking the ball, or is he going to be spinning me with curveballs?’ He’d know what kind of swing path he needed. Willie was able to manipulate, and be versatile enough with his swing, to almost have two or three different swings.”
Calhoun would sometimes use different bats for different pitchers. While the biggest determiner was the hurler’s handedness, repertoires were also a consideration.
The flexibility paid dividends. Previously unproven and unpolished,the 25-year-old (as of last month) outfielder slashed .269/.323/.524, and went deep 21 times in just 337 plate appearances. A year earlier, he’d scuffled to the tune of a .602 OPS in a 35-game big-league cameo as the club’s No. 1 prospect.
It’s not as though Calhoun and the Rangers were looking to reinvent the wheel. Players have long dabbled with different bat sizes, and adjusted their swings. At the same time, a concerted effort — led by hitting coach Luis Ortiz — was in play. Having multiple weapons of choice is analogous to another sport.
“We talked about it a lot,” said Woodward. “Like, ‘Why not?’ Golfers do it. They have different clubs for different conditions. They use different irons if they want to knock down, or have high loft. Not everyone is going to do that, but some of our guys bought in. Shin-Soo Choo also used a different bat against lefties than he did against righties. Hunter Pence did it at times, depending on the pitcher.”
Woodward is smart enough to recognize that ideas can’t be shoved down players’ throats. For that reason, the 2019 season was, by and large, a first step. More is in store.
“We tried to make our guys as open as possible,” explained Woodward. “That was our whole goal last year. We wanted to provide these guys with an open forum, provide them with information, really push them on learning, and on having a growth mindset. That way, when we do start presenting them with some more-outside-the-box ideas, they won’t be like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa; this is too much.’ They’ll be open to it. And a lot of our hitters already are. Even guys we thought wouldn’t be open to it were by the end of the year. I see a lot more progress as we go forward.”
We’ll hear more from Woodward on his team’s evolving hitting practices shortly after the new year.
The Oakland A’s have Fielding Bible award winners at the infield corners, and an above-average defensive shortstop. The keystone position is currently a question mark. At the Winter Meetings, I asked Bob Melvin who would join Matt Olson (13 DRS), Matt Chapman (18 DRS), and Marcus Semien (five DRS) if the season were to start today.
“If we can add another stellar defensive performer at second base, we could have probably the best defense in the league,” the veteran manager responded. “As we sit here, Franklin Barreto, Jorge Mateo, Sheldon Neuse, Chad Pinder — all of those guys are viable options for us. We’re probably going to look for a left-handed bat at some point in time, and that’s one of the positions where, potentially, we do that. Ryan Goins, who we signed, is a left-handed bat.”
Melvin claimed that he’d be happy with anyone from that mix, although he did qualify that by saying, “My guess is [we’ll] bring some other guys in.” And while a quality bat would be welcome, a plus glove would likewise be appealing. Despite elevated strikeout numbers, paired with an increased an emphasis on hitting balls in the air, the former catcher still values defense at second base.
“It’s an important position because of all the left-handed hitters that you have in the league,” Melvin told me. “And how you’re configuring your defense now, the position comes into play not only with ground balls, but fly balls as well. So yes, it’s an important defensive position.”
Marcus Semien and Xander Bogaerts were both feted at the Winter Meetings. The latter copped top shortstop honors on the inaugural All-MLB team, while the former was named as runner-up at that position. Given their defensive profiles as up-and-comers, each deserves a feather in the cap for turning himself into a middle-of-the-infield stalwart. That’s especially true for Bogaerts, who many saw a third baseman. I was once told by a prominent prospect writer — in matter-of-fact terms, no less — that Bogaerts would never play shortstop in MLB.
Semien and Bogaerts competed against each other in the Carolina League, in 2012. The Oakland All-Star was effusive in his praise when I asked about his contemporary.
“He played third in the  World Series, but in the minor leagues I saw him as a shortstop,” said Semien. “I knew that guy was a great player, an MVP-caliber player. He’s a two-time World Series champion, Silver Slugger, he had a monster year this year. I’m very happy to see people I competed against in the minor leagues take their games to the next level.”
Bogaerts has an .801 OPS since debuting with Boston in August 2013. And while not the second coming of Ozzie Smith — his bat still outshines his glove — it’s worth noting that he’s started 855 games at the shortstop position. With 227 more starts at short, Bogaerts will surpass Everett Scott for the most in Red Sox franchise history.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
“Certain guys do that really well,” said Martinez. “Romo throws a lot of sliders and sometimes they stay straight and other times they’ll break. He differentiates his slider a lot, and that makes it tough on a hitter. You kind of just have to hope you’re in the right margin for it with your swing.”
He hasn’t been very often. The Red Sox slugger is 1 for 8, with five strikeouts, against the 36-year-old righty. Romo re-signed with the Twins earlier week.
Oakland pitching coach Scott Emerson offered an informed take on lack-of-movement sliders this past summer. In his view, its effectiveness is mostly about the count.
“Hitters are generally going to hit medium-speed-close,” Emerson told me. “But they’re going to do it with two strikes. That’s because they have to swing. A lot of medium-speed, backup sliders show up analytically as a good spot to go, but that’s because the hitters recognize it at 0-0 and don’t swing. They’re expecting it to end up away, they don’t want it away on the first pitch, so they give it away.
“Conversely, if you back up a breaking pitch with two strikes, generally you’re in trouble. That’s why the down-and-away slider with two strikes is still the No.1 spot to go. Pitchers will make mistakes early in the count trying to go down and away — it gets away from them and backs up — and they catch a strike because the hitter doesn’t swing. If he does swing, then we’re in trouble.”
The Tampa Bay Rays announced that Andy Freed and Dave Wills will be returning for their 16th season together in the radio booth.
Frank Herrmann, who has spent each of the three seasons with NPB’s Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, will be playing for the Chiba Lotte Marines next year.
The ninth annual SABR Analytics Conference will take place in Phoenix from Friday, March 13 to Sunday, March 15, 2020. Information can be found here.
“He’s going to do some things with his delivery that will look a little different than last year. The lengthy pause when he got over the rubber, I think you won’t see that. He’s working on more of a fluid momentum-building delivery.”
Freeland backslid in 2019. Coming off a stellar 2018 season that saw him go 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA, he struggled to the tune of 3-11, 6.73. His HR/9 rate nearly tripled, jumping from 0.76 to 2.16. Last year’s results are something Rockies fans definitely don’t want to see in 2020.
Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson is big on biomechanics, so it came as no surprise when he shared the following with me during the ALDS:
“You can have all the grip you want, but if you don’t have the delivery as sound as you can get it, the grip doesn’t matter. You’re not going to be consistent. Sometimes we’re too quick to try to change grips, and forget to look at whether a pitcher is lacking arm speed, or is lacking connection to get his hand to a certain point. That’s usually more important than the grip itself.”
Count Eric Lauer among those who believe that batters were hitting a rabbit ball in 2019. The southpaw’s answer expressed as much when I asked him, midseason, how difficult it is to pitch when checked swings are seemingly traveling 350 plus. (An exaggeration, but he got my point.)
“It’s unbelievable, man,” the then-Padre replied with a shake of the head. “I don’t think it changes how you pitch — you still have to attack guys and try to get weak contact — but you’re aware of it. It’s just an unfortunate part of pitching, the way the game is going right now. They’re juicing the balls like crazy.”
Lauer was dealt to the Brewers at the end of November.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
At Yahoo Sports, Hannah Keyser bemoaned the fact that reporters are trying to one-up each other by breaking not only news, but also rumors.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora traveled to England to learn more about the Liverpool Football Club, which boasts “an unmatched analytics department,” and is adept at roster rebuilding. Jen McCaffrey has the story at The Athletic.
Sports Illustrated’s Matt Martell asked MLB managers for their opinions on the new three-batter minimum rule.
Over at The Tigers History Project, Mitch Ludzke wrote about how the BBWAA was born in Detroit to protect reporters’ press box seats.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Ian Kinsler, who announced his retirement on Friday, will have finished his career with 1,999 hits. Hall of Fame infielder Jimmy Collins also finished with 1,999 hits. A total of 287 players have 2,000 or more hits.
Dallas Keuchel had the highest ground-ball rate (60.1%) among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings in 2019. His sinker had the most vertical drop, relative to league average, among full-time starters. The 31-year-old lef-thander signed a three-year deal with the White Sox yesterday.
C.J. Cron had 25 home runs in 499 plate appearances last year. Jonathan Schoop had 23 home runs in 464 plate appearances. Brandon Dixon led the Tigers with 15 home runs. Cron and Schoop reportedly signed with Detroit yesterday.
Alex Avila has swung at the lowest percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone of any player over the past five seasons (min. 1,000 plate appearances.) Avila’s O-Swing% since 2015 is 15.3%.
Wilmer Flores is the only player in MLB history to have played at least 143 games at every infield position: first base: 155, second base: 165, shortstop: 162; third base: 143. (per ESPN’s Pedro Gomez.)
Derek Jeter started 2,660 games at shortstop, the only defensive position he played. Pete Rose started games at six different defensive positions: first base (905), left field (652), third base (627), second base (600), right field (581), center field (70).
On December 23, 1975, an arbitrator’s ruling made Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith baseball’s first free agents. Messersmith signed a three-year, $1M contract with the Angels the following April. McNally opted to retire.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.