Sunday Notes: Low Strikes and Winter Deals

Last Sunday’s column included several perspectives on the strike zone. Arizona Diamondbacks’ senior vice president of baseball operations De Jon Watson wasn’t one of the people quoted, but I did address the subject with him at the winter meetings.

Watson told me his club is paying attention, and is thus aware the 2014 zone was lower than it’s been in the past. He said teams need to be cognizant of everything going on in the industry, including how umpires are calling games. As for how a lower strike zone relates to player acquisition, Watson – like others in the industry – wasn’t very forthcoming.

“With each player, we assess and evaluate what they handle best and what balls they’re putting in play on a consistent basis,” said Watson. “We do our homework to make sure we’re procuring guys who fit our ballpark, our need, and really, where the game is going. We’re always studying trends.”

What Watson said about the strike zone as it pertains to player development was far more intriguing.

“You have to be in line with the curve as you’re training players coming up through your minor-league system,” said Watson. “I think it’s imperative they know exactly what they’re going to see when they get to the next level.”

I asked a hitting instructor in the D-Backs organization if he could elaborate on what Watson told me. In other words, does the lower strike zone impact how players are being taught?

I was politely told I wouldn’t get an answer to that question.

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I always enjoy talking hitting with Lloyd McClendon. The Mariners manager – and former Tigers hitting coach – always has something interesting to say on the subject. Our conversations haven’t been expansive, but they are usually enlightening.

When I caught up to him at the winter meetings, McClendon shared his current views on patience-versus-aggressiveness at the plate. Not surprisingly, the influx of power arms is impacting his thought-process.

“When I coached in Detroit, our game plan was to be patient,” said McClendon. “It was to take pitches and get to the other team’s middle relief. Well, middle relief is now throwing 98-99 mph. You’re not in such a hurry to get to it, and as a result, I think you’ll see hitters more on the attack and trying to score early.”

The Seattle skipper also weighed in on how defensive shifts can impact an offense. McClendon loves the long ball – who doesn’t? – but nonetheless he sees a need for a more nuanced approach.

“I want my hitters to be complete hitters, with the ability to hit the ball the other way,” explained McClendon. “We’re in the age of shifts, and we’ve got to be able to exploit those shifts. We can’t let defenses set up in a way they have an advantage on us.”

I asked if having hitters go the other way would compromise their power and thus limit their impact. His response – delivered with a sly smile – was a McClendon classic.

“I tell my hitters there is no law against hitting the ball the other way out of the ballpark,” said McClendon. “You can do that. You won’t get arrested for it.”

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This past week, the Rays traded Matt Joyce to the Los Angeles Angels pf Anaheim for Kevin Jepsen. The deal, which I see as a steal for the team with the unnecessarily-long name, got me thinking about a pair of conversations I had earlier this summer.

I asked the left-handed Joyce – who rarely faced same-sided pitchers with Tampa Bay– if he would rather hit .300 being platooned, or .270 playing every day?

“I don’t know if there’s a right answer to that question,” responded Joyce, who was tearing the cover off the ball at the time. “I’ve always wanted to be an everyday guy, but that’s something I have no control over. I’ve had many conversations with Joe about it.”

Maddon told me (I’m paraphrasing here, as I didn’t record his quotes) that a manager has to be careful not to overexpose a platoon-type hitter. He said it’s not prudent to project a hitter to remain hot if you put him into too many poor match-ups.

Cleveland GM Chris Antonetti touched on the subject during the winter meetings when asked about Lonnie Chisenhall.

“It’s a balance,” said Antonetti. “No one knows exactly how a player will respond to any set of circumstances – how successful he will be with any number of plate appearances, or innings. The only way you find those things out is by giving people opportunities.”

Opportunities. There’s a chicken and there’s an egg. Would Joyce thrive with an expanded role? Will we ever know?

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There is a pretty decent chance Mark Kotsay will have a more-enjoyable stint as Padres hitting coach than did Phil Plantier. Why? Here are a few reasons: Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Derek Norris, Justin Upton. Assuming he’s healthy, Will Middlebrooks might be added to that list as well.

You can’t blame Plantier if he’s sitting home thinking, “Hey, why wasn’t I given players like that to work with?”It must be frustrating to lose your job because you couldn’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit.

Chili Davis, now the hitting coach in Boston, understands the pecking order.

“If they hit, I look good,” Davis told me recently. “It doesn’t work the other way around. I need them more than they need me. That’s the way it works for a coach.”

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Young players are often asked if there is anyone they emulate. Early in 2007, Curtis Granderson – just beginning his second full season – told me Chet Lemon was “the kind of player I’d like be to considered similar to.”

Granderson has played eight seasons since that time, and to this point he’s fallen short of his role model. Lemon has the edge in wRC+, 122 to 117, and while it’s hard to accurately compare defense across eras, Lemon was better with the glove as well. Granderson – about to go into his age-34 season – has more home runs and stolen bases, but Lemon was more consistent.

Granderson shared an interesting piece of information in our 2007 conversation. Three years earlier, when he played for Double-A Erie, hitting coach Pete Incaviglia fined hitters a dollar every time they took a strike on a fastball. If they got a hit on a fastball, he paid them a dollar. According to Granderson, Incaviglia “wanted us to be aggressive rather than wait for a pitch we may not even get.”

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Pirates pitchers batted an even .100 in 2014. Only two of their 30 hits went for extra bases and their 143 strikeouts were the most in either league. Clint Hurdle wasn’t happy.

The Pittsburgh manager brought this up during the winter meetings when asked which facets of the game his team needs to improve upon. Hurdle said pitchers’ offense has been “a sore spot” and that other teams “have a very big competitive advantage” because of it.

The Dodgers (.425), Cubs (.420) and Cardinals (.376) all saw their pitchers log an OPS superior to Pittsburgh’s paltry .248. Only the Brewers and Mets lagged behind the banjo-hitting Bucs.

According to Hurdle, the woes are partly a result of pitchers acquired from outside the organization. He said the Pirates stress the importance in the minors. That doesn’t mean every home-grown hurler is an offensive threat, although Gerrit Cole did have a respectable .447 OPS. Cole was the only former farmhand to make more than 10 starts this year.

Regardless of where they were weaned, Pittsburgh pitchers need to become better with the bat. Hurdle said efforts are being made – last year the Pirates instituted extra plate appearances during minor-league spring training games – and this year they will explore additional methods.

Hurdle believes pitchers should receive the same level of attention as position players. He feels they need to understand their swings and situational hitting. In Hurdle’s words, when his pitchers are doing hitting drills, it’s “not all fun and practice – we try to put some challenges in front of them as well.”

Barring a revamping of the staff, it’s a momentous challenge. Pirates pitchers can pitch. With few exceptions, they can’t hit.

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Managers are put in a precarious position when asked about players they know might soon be gone. Rumors were floated during the winter meetings that Miami might deal Nathan Eovaldi and Andrew Heaney. The scuttlebutt proved true. Heaney went to the Dodgers, who then flipped him to the Angels. Eovaldi was subsequently dealt to the Yankees.

Approximately an hour before the Heaney trade was announced, I asked Marlins manager Mike Redmond about both pitchers. He presumably knew something was in the works, but be adroitly fielded my inquiries.

Redmond spoke well of each, praising their raw stuff and their potential. In each case, he stressed the need for further development. Eovaldi has 460 innings under his belt, but is just 24 years old. Heaney, the 9th overall pick of the 2012 draft, is 23 and only seven games into his major-league career.

His Heaney comments didn’t suggest anything imminent – does Redmond play poker? – and included: “He’s still a pup, but he’s got a chance to make us a lot better going forward,” and “We love his stuff and his makeup.”

What Redmond said about Eovaldi is more topical, as the deal with the Yankees went down just two days ago.

“I think it’s fair to say he was up and down most of the year,” said Redmond. “He had some really good starts, and also didn’t get a whole lot of run support. He’s a guy with a big arm, but he’s still young. The guy throws 100, so it’s not a physical thing. It’s just continuing to learn how to pitch – learning how to command that fastball, as well as the breaking ball.”

Eovaldi’s four-seam fastball is explosive (despite being a ground-ball pitcher, he doesn’t throw a two-seam). What’s hindered him has been a lack of consistency with his slider, curveball and changeup. Earlier this season, Jarrod Saltalamacchia told me Eovaldi would “be right up there with Jose Fernandez if he didn’t struggle with his secondary a little bit.”

The Marlins obviously don’t expect Eovaldi to master his secondary stuff. If they did, they wouldn’t have moved him in the deal featuring Martin Prado. Given Eovaldi’s high-90s heat, would turning him into a power reliever have been a viable option?

“Something like that would depend on how many starters we have,” Redmond told me at the meetings. “Right now we need him as a starter.”

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Mat Latos essentially slots into Eovaldi’s old spot. Acquired from the Reds for youngsters Anthony DeSclafani and Chad Wallach, the 27-year-old right-hander provides quality innings when healthy. He made just 16 starts in 2014 and has plenty to prove going into the final year of his contract.

Tom Koehler – another member of the Marlins staff – proved himself this past season. The 28-year-old was one of Miami’s most-consistent starters. In his second full year in the big leagues, Koehler went 10-10 with a 3.81 ERA over 32 starts.

The under-the-radar righty is a bulldog. Saltalamacchia told me Koehler reminds him of John Lackey in that he’s not going to back down. He said Koehler has a good fastball and a curveball he can throw for strikes. He added that Koehler’s slider isn’t as good as Lackey’s.

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Unlike teams in other cities – including NL Central cities – the Reds lack presents under their proverbial tree. While others are unwrapping shiny new toys, Cincinnati has brought in DeScalfani, Wallach, Matt Magill, Eugenio Suarez and Jonathon Crawford. Gone are Latos and Alfredo Simon, who went 15-10 with a 3.44 ERA. Also gone is Chris Heisey, although that’s less of a loss.

The Reds lost 86 games this year and finished in fourth place. The division’s fifth-place team has since added Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, Miguel Montero, and manager Joe Maddon.

Presuming contention is an objective, this is an off-season that demands upgrades in the Queen City. So far, it hasn’t happened. A scout recently told me he likes DeSclafani, but the fact remains the former Marlin had a 6.27 ERA in his first taste of big-league action. He’ll turn 25 in April and isn’t viewed as a top-shelf prospect. Crawford is a former first-round pick but many see him eventually moving to the bullpen.

The Reds appear to be banking on big-time improvements from players who last year were part of a sub-.500 team. Unless GM Walt Jocketty has his hands tied, he probably has to push the button on some substantive deals in order for his team not to tread water, or even flounder, in 2015.

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Today marks the winter solstice, so what better time to celebrate players named dark, short and winter?

A three-time all-star shortstop for the New York Giants, Alvin Dark started the ninth-inning rally that culminated in by Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”. Two decades later, while managing the Giants, Dark was dubbed “The Swamp Fox” after watering down the first-base area in an attempt to slow down Dodgers’ speedster Maury Wills.

There have been four players with the last name Short. Two were left-handed pitchers, one of which (Bill Short) was 5-foot-9. The other was 6-foot-4 and the best of the bunch. Chris Short won 132 games for the Phillies from 1959-1972 before finishing his career with the Cardinals.

Baseball history claims one Winter (there are three with the last name Winters). George Lovington Winter – nicknamed “Sassafrass” – was the 5-foot-8 right-handed pitcher for the Boston Americans (who later became the Red Sox) from 1901-1908. He finished his career with the Tigers.





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.

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Blue
Guest
Blue

Pete Incaviglia as a hitting coach should be a firing offense for a GM.

John C
Guest
John C

He must have done something right. That team led the Eastern League in runs by a large margin that season, and Granderson was the only guy on the team who became a very good major-leaguer. And Inky’s got a pretty good record as a minor-league manager, too.

Rob Deer has spent a number of years as a hitting coach himself, and no one would think of him as an ideal hitting coach candidate, either. I remember seeing an interview with him, and he said that he hit the way he did because that was the most productive hitting style for him, but that he understood hitting fundamentals well, and he knew better than to teach his hitting style to young players. (Although if he ever goes to work for Billy Beane, they might ask him to. Billy loves him some fly balls and walks.)

Max G
Guest
Max G

I actually like his $1 fine per fastball strike not swung at. Every professional hitter should be able to square up a fastball, if it is a strike. Based on the results of that squad, maybe Pete was onto something with that approach.