Ian Happ had a solid rookie season with the Chicago Cubs in 2017. The switch-hitting outfielder slashed .253/.328/.514 and went deep 24 times in 413 plate appearances. He learned a lot of lessons along the way, and they began early with an influx of high heaters.
“I was pretty successful in the first week or two,” said Happ, who logged 10 hits in his first 28 big-league at bats. “Then I started seeing a lot of elevated four-seamers. It took me a long time to figure out how to hit that pitch.”
The method he adopted was antithetical to the launch-angle swing.
“Belt-high four-seam fastballs, especially when guys have ride, or something that looks like it’s jumping at you… that’s a pitch where you need to be able to adjust your swing plane in oder to handle it,” explained Happ. “You have to be flatter. You almost have to be above the baseball and attacking with a downward plane. That’s the only way to be direct and get on that pitch, which is different than hitting an off-speed pitch or something low in the zone where you can kind of create a little more lift.”
According to the 2015 first-round pick, the adjustment was mental as well as physical. Preparation was required, as simply seeing and reacting in the moment would have been insufficient.
“If you’re going to change your swing plane that drastically, you have to go in with a plan knowing that he’s going to throw you a four-seam fastball up,” opined Happ. “You have to look to attack it that way, or you’re not going to hit it. You have to know who you’re facing and adjust accordingly.”
His new hitting coach appears to be a fit for his approach. Chili Davis isn’t anti-launch angle, but he’s also not a big advocate of the increasingly-popular trend.
“It’s been great to pick his brain, especially with him having been a switch-hitter,” said Happ. “He played for 19 years, so his knowledge of how guys pitch to you is awesome. He has an understanding of things like (launch angle), but his vernacular is much more about approach and what you’re trying to do with the baseball.”
Nick Ahmed hasn’t hit much since reaching the big-leagues. The slick-fielding shortstop came into the season with a .226/.273/.345 slash line in 1,020 plate appearances with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He aspires to be better than that, and three games into the current campaign the early returns are promising. Following a spring training where he put up a .933 OPS, Ahmed has started the regular season 5 for 11 with a pair of doubles, a home run, and six RBIs.
Earlier this spring, I asked the University of Connecticut product about his evolution as a hitter. More specifically, I asked him why he’s mostly scuffled since a 2014 Triple-A season that saw him slash .312/.373/.425.
“I had the one tough year (2013) in the minors, in Double-A, but outside of that I felt I was making a nice progression,” Ahmed told me. “Triple-A was a really good year, but when I got to the big leagues, I complicated things a little too much. I tried to make too many adjustments here and there. (In Triple-A), I’d kept things simple and had more trust in what I was doing.”
Why did Ahmed begin tinkering after such a successful minor-league season?
“I was trying to get better and better,” explained Ahmed. “I ended up trying some things that didn’t necessarily work. I toggled back and forth between too many different things, and I spent too much time thinking about my mechanics and not enough about just being present in the box. That’s nobody’s fault but mine, and it was a good learning experience.”
When I asked Ahmed if he’s essentially gone back to what he was doing when he first got called up, I anticipated an answer in the affirmative. That’s not what I got.
“Not really,” responded Ahmed. “I’ve developed an approach that’s going to work against major league pitching — help me drive the ball to the middle of the field, and be able to cover multiple zones and multiple speeds without having to cheat or change my swing. It’s been a process and I’m going to continue to get better for the next five, 10, 12 years of my career.”
The Orioles’ slugger told me that he doesn’t begin thinking about the pitchers he’ll be facing in a series until the advance meeting on Day One. Prior to then, his focus is 100% on the task at hand.
“I don’t look at anything we have ahead of today,” explained Davis. “We have enough on our plate with the team we’re facing. I mean, you have an idea of who a team is going to throw in the days to come, but you have to prepare for who you’re facing that game. Looking forward isn’t going to be too beneficial.”
His work in the cage, and during batting practice, is mostly about being who he is.
“I work on things I feel are going to put me into a better position to recognize pitches, and hit,” said Davis. “I’m not thinking things like, ‘This guy is going to pitch me this way,’ or ‘He’s going to go X, Y, Z in these counts.’ That’s more of a game you play within the game, once it starts. I’ve been around long enough to have a pretty good idea of how guys are going to pitch me, but at the same time they’re going to make adjustments pitch to pitch.
“I have to be ready to do what I do. I’m not a guy who is going to go up there and sit on pitches, or look for a certain pitch in a certain count. I try to keep it simple and look for a strike that I can hopefully do some damage with.”
In last Sunday’s column, Andy Green was quoted as saying that the Padres would like Manny Margot to score 100 runs this year. The young outfielder obviously can’t do that on his own — someone will need to drive him in — but that doesn’t mean the number was floated frivolously.
“Basically, if you’re saying you want a guy to score runs, you want him to get on base,” explained the San Diego skipper. “And if that’s your main focus you don’t care if it’s a walk or a hit. You also want to be putting yourself in position to score by taking an extra base — stealing a base when it’s there, going from first to third. All of those things add into the concept of scoring 100 runs.”
Margot needs to take a step forward with both his walk rate and his base-stealing chops. The fleet-afoot Dominican was a pedestrian 17 for 24 in the bag-swiping category in 2017, and he accepted free passes at just a 6.6% clip.
The Red Sox bullpen imploded on opening day. Entrusted to protect a 4-0 eighth-inning lead in Tampa Bay, it instead coughed up six runs. Neither of the hurlers responsible for the debacle was named Craig Kimbrel.
Alex Cora has expressed a willingness to use his closer prior to the ninth inning, so why didn’t he do so on Thursday? According to The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo, there were two reasons.
Kimbrel missed much of spring training due to a family health issue, and Boston’s new manager felt that it was thus “too early” to use him in the eighth inning. Not only would the overpowering righty need to get ready in the middle of the inning, he’d also have to go back out for the ninth.
Cafardo addressed Cora’s reasoning with a good question: “Couldn’t he have used Kimbrel in the eighth in the high-leverage situation, and then use someone else for the ninth?”
It will be interesting to see what Cora does going forward. There’s little doubt he’ll use Kimbrel in the eighth inning once he feels he’s ready, but will he automatically give him the ninth inning as well? And if he doesn’t, will Kimbrel offer push back because it could cost him a save?
Opening Day rosters (including players on the disabled list) featured 254 players who were born outside of the United States. A record-high 21 countries and territories were represented, led by the Dominican Republic (85), Venezuela (74), Puerto Rico (19), Cuba (17), Mexico (11), and Japan (8). The Texas Rangers have the most foreign-born players (14), while the Dodgers lead the way with players from eight different countries.
Jerry Moses, who caught for seven teams over parts of nine seasons, died this week at age 71. Primarily a backup — he once claimed to have “a PhD in bullpen” — Moses is the youngest player (18 years, 289 days) in Red Sox history to hit a home run.
The Helena (Montana) Brewers, Milwaukee’s affiliate in the rookie-level Pioneer League, have named Greg Mroz as their new director of broadcasting and media relations. Mroz was with the San Rafael Pacifics last year after spending two seasons with the Clinton Lumber Kings.
The Tigers have reportedly asked MLB for a copy of the video they used to overturn a call in the 10th inning of Friday’s game. The original ruling — a safe call at home plate — would have given Detroit a season-opening win over the Pirates. Instead, after a review process that lasted an excruciating 3:41, the ruling was reversed and Pittsburgh went on to win.
The league office should honor the request. They presumably have inconclusive video evidence to support the reversal, and refusing to share it would smack of disingenuousness. Secondly, no review should take that long. If a ruling can’t be made within two minutes, the call should stand as is.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Our annual staff predictions came out on Wednesday, and in them I listed Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer as the American League Cy Young Award winner. A commenter subsequently suggested that I supply a brief explanation for what he considers a “notable outlier” pick, which I will do here.
Bauer seems poised for breakout. The 27-year-old righty is heading into his fifth full season, and he’s coming off a year where he fanned 10 batters per nine innings and logged a career-best 3.88 FIP over 176-and-a-third innings. He also won 17 games, and while the W column doesn’t mean what it used to, it retains a prominent place on a pitcher’s stat sheet. For better or for worse, a not-insignificant number of award voters place weight on it.
The feeling here is that Bauer will improve upon the aforementioned numbers, and on other as well. A regression to the mean from last year’s .337 BABiP — the third highest among qualified pitchers — will certainly work in his favor.
Furthermore, Bauer arguably puts more work into his craft than any pitcher in baseball. A Driveline acolyte, the former UCLA engineering student is constantly looking for ways to optimize his performance — and he’s more than willing to go off the beaten path to do so. Call him baseball’s mad scientist if you will, but I see his efforts manifesting themselves into a Cy Young-quality season.
Miscommunication resulted in Phillies first-year manager Gabe Kapler calling for a reliever who hadn’t adequately warmed up during last night’s game. The reaction to the snafu on social media? Based on what I saw scrolling through Twitter, it was hot takes in overdrive. Numerous people suggested that Kapler should be fired, and not simply because of the bullpen blunder. Apparently, he pulls starters too soon, shifts too much, plays people out of position… and so on, and so on.
Yesterday’s date was March 31 and the Phillies now have a record of 1-2.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Over at ESPN, Bradford Doolittle wrote about the slow demystification of defensive statistics.
According to The Ringer’s Ben Lindberg, three true outcomes appear to be in store for MLB again this season.
At USA Today, Scott Boeck told us about how the Colorado Rockies are paying their relievers more than their starters, and how they aren’t the only team doing so.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Thursday’s rainout was Cincinnati’s first weather-related postponement on Opening Day since 1966. The Reds 1996 opener was canceled seven pitches into the game when home plate umpire John McSherry died of a massive heart attack.
Buck Showalter has an Opening Day record of 14-5 as a manager, including 8-0 with the Orioles.
Of the 435 players who came to the plate 100-or-more times last year, Alex Avila swung at the lowest percentage of pitches outside the strike zone (14.3). Salvador Perez (47.9%) swung at the highest percentage of pitches outside the strike zone.
Henry Easterday and Chicken Wolf both played for the 1890 Louisville Colonels. Their club won the Atlantic Association pennant and played the National League’s Brooklyn Bridegrooms to a 3-3-1 tie in the World Series.
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.