Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Twins hitting coach looking to fix team's approach at the plate

Hitting coach Joe Vavra recently shared some ideas behind what was causing the drought at the plate with the Pioneer Press’s Tom Powers. Plenty of factors played into the team’s offensive ineptitude but for those who did make it to the plate, Vavra felt that the approach was fundamentally lacking:

“Some couldn't grasp that they couldn't pull every pitch or that sometimes it was better to take a few. As a result, they struggled.
Despite some fans objections to the contrary, Joe Vavra comes off as a smart, intelligent and process-oriented hitting coach. I have personally never had the opportunity to meet with him however in interviews and articles about him, he comes off as someone who has a keen understanding of the art and science of hitting. After all, as stated in this column and in previous interviews, he has a history of checking data to assist in his techniques and teachings – and advanced viewpoint coming from a position that has historically been of the “see ball, hit ball, spit chew, little bingo, how now brown cow” ilk.

In that particular piece, Vavra does not outright say what constitutes “struggling” or rather which metric he uses to gauge that, however, he cited batting average a number of times. Because pull-hitting often takes a toll on a player’s average, you can see why the Twins would want to discourage this practice. Using more of the field is an indication that a hitter is able to handle more pitches in more zones. For example, if a right-handed hitter gets too pull-happy and attempts to turn on a pitch on the outer-half, odds are they will be pulling something towards the shortstop rather than “going with the pitch” to right field. In theory, opposing teams will recognize this and attack the outer-half more which will incite a player to turn-over on the pitch more often and drag down his batting average.

This more or less seems to be what Vavra is saying happened to the 2011 squad, particularly the young right-handed hitters.

Given that the Twins cycled through a greater number of younger hitters through the lineup that hit from the right side (Trevor Plouffe, Luke Hughes, Drew Butera, Joe Benson, etc) Vavra’s theory makes sense. Not surprising, the data indicates that the right-handers turned on 29.9% of their balls in play – a sizeable jump from the 24.3% pull rate in 2010. As such, righties hit .237 as a group, their lowest in the past three seasons:

Now, the batted ball data shows the outcome but it clearly does not show intent. That is something that hitting coaches can detect and video can reveal a bit more on what a hitter was trying to do when being pitched away. While a near 30% pull rate is high, there may be more outer-half pitches that hitters attempted to pull but directed them towards center instead of right field. What data might show some of that is the precipitous drop in using the opposite field successfully over the past three years. The idea is that if a hitter is focused on going oppo, the result should be better:

As you can glean, the 2011 Twins were considerably less successful at going the opposite direction than their predecessors. If the 2011 lineup was indeed less focused on driving shots to right field, it is reflective in those splits.

So, redirecting those players who may have grown too pull-happy like Trevor Plouffe or Danny Valencia back towards the big part of the field may help bolster their batting average but what of the power?

As I’ve written about extensively here, Target Field plays more favorably for pull hitters. This offseason, Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit were added to the lineup and both hitters showed clear pull tendencies over their careers. In Willingham’s case, he moved to Oakland and grew increasingly pull-happy to combat the spacious park. Although he set a career high in home runs (29) that came at the expense of over 20 batting average points and a significant amount of on-base numbers. If the team wants the home runs added to the repertoire, they should encourage Willingham to keep the same approach he had as an Athletic.

Not long ago, the Twins tinkered with Hardy’s approach at the plate, suggesting he was getting too pull-happy. Hardy had incorporated the opposite-field mentality to his approach which the Orioles hitting coach told him to forget. Not only did Hardy’s batting average remain at a high level after going back to being a pull hitter, he also jacked 30 home runs.

Will Vavra allow Willingham and Doumit to retain their approaches? Of course it is up to the individual but it sounds as if Vavra had his way, it sounds like he would discourage the pair from this method. According to Tom Powers’ column, the Pioneer Press scribe posited the question if power hitters should try “to yank the ball” to which Vavra replied “I’d challenge them on that”. The reasoning behind Vavra’s contention was never clarified but I would speculate that it has to do with what amounts to a batting average drain.

Clearly, talent certainly played a key factor in the degeneration of the batting average from the right-side for the Twins but the inexperience and the pull-heavy tendencies also contributed. The old adage “hit it where it’s pitched” applies. Still, pulling the ball is not as big of an enemy to the offense as some would think.