Back when I was a beat writer covering the Pirates, manager Clint Hurdle had a practice each spring camp when he and front office staffers would identify one area that was a weakness a season earlier and try to improve upon it. Rather than focus on many things, Hurdle would try to sharpen one area. One year it was defensive alignment, another year it was pitcher’s hitting ability and in 2014 it was the club’s two-strike approach.
In 2013, the season when the Pirates returned to the postseason and ended a run of 20 consecutive losing seasons, the Pirates pitched well, shifted often, and used an MVP season from Andrew McCutchen to record 94 wins. One thing the club didn’t do well is hit with two strikes. The club finished 26th in the game with a .474 two-strike OPS.
So in the spring of 2014, after their two-strike performance was identified as an issue, in the open-air batting cages of the Pirates’ Bradenton, Fla. complex the Pirates went to work with hitting coach Jeff Branson on better using the whole field, trying to be more contact-oriented with two strikes. The Pirates cut their two-strike strikeout rate by 2.3% and improved their two-strike OPS to .533, fifth in the majors. Russell Martin was a key adopter. He produced a career-best .402 on-base mark in 2014, up from .327 a year earlier, in part large due to a .337 two-strike, on-base mark. He cut his strikeouts by four percentage points, and his pull % by another five points.
While it was a small sample in the sense it was one season for the Pirates, it was still a sample of 3,152 plate appearances that included two strikes in 2014, with many of the key actors returning from the previous season. It seemed to speak to improvement from focused practice and attention.
I am returning to this subject today because I believe it is perhaps an instructive example of where a field manager can add value after front office leadership hands him a roster to work with in early February. A manager does not have much power to add or subtract personnel. But perhaps a manager and his coaching staff can add value in identifying a team-wide weakness, like two-strike approach, and implement a plan to improve it. And the time to identify and improve, collectively as a team, is in the spring. I am returning to this subject today because of the Dodgers.
The Dodgers do not have many weakness as we approach the season. In FanGraphs’ positional depth chart rankings published over the two weeks, they rank No. 1 in starting pitching and bullpen forecasts, No. 3 at shortstop, No. 4 at catcher and No. 7 at third base. They are tied with the Cubs atop FanGraphs’ preseason standings projections along with the Cubs at 94 wins. The Dodgers are projected to lead the majors in run differential (124).
But the Dodgers don’t do everything well. Really! And the Dodgers are aware of this.
In Baseball America’s preview issue this week — well worth a read, everyone — Hall of Famer Peter Gammons wrote about how the Dodgers are trying to copy the success of the division-rival Giants, who have developed a successful two-strike approach. The Giants believe that approach is encouraged by a home park that is not inviting of pull power. Reported Gammons in BA’s paper product:
Manager Dave Roberts, team president Andrew Friedman and all of the Dodgers’ people are well aware of the Giants’ two-strike success. They’re also aware that Dodgers batters tended to drop their back shoulders with two strikes as they tried to yank the ball to their pull side. …
“It’s what we’ve emphasized all spring,” Roberts said “It is getting better.”
Last March, Eno Sarris looked at whether hitters have lost their two-strike approach. It is more difficult to hit with two-strikes today due to the velocity and movement in the game, but there should remain a relative advantage available. Teams with more of a focus on reducing strikeouts, with more bat-to-ball skills, should be more efficient with two strikes. In 2015, the Royals had the fewest strikeouts in baseball and ranked third in two-strike OPS en route to a World Series title. The Giants, that season, ranked fourth in two-strike OPS. Here is last season’s two-strike production:
There are quite a few playoff teams at the top of that list.
The Dodgers are also aware of another Giants’ hidden edge, that of pitchers’ offensive performance as the Dodgers ranked 10th in the NL in pitcher OPS (.290) while the Giants ranked fourth (.405). Sure, rostering Madison Bumgarner doesn’t hurt that effort.
But if the Dodgers have a buy in to an improved two-strike concept perhaps they can be even more productive as an offensive group this season. That the most talented team according to projections is focused on getting better at the little things, on improving at the margins this spring, should be concerning to the rest of the field.