Angels preaching patience
Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar each drew walks in an exhibition game against the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday.
Play was not halted so the Angels could present game balls to the two infielders, but a momentous occasion it was.
Here was Kendrick, who drew all of 12 walks in 340 at-bats last season, and Aybar, who drew 14 walks in 346 at-bats, showing good enough eyes to draw free passes in the same game, a testament to the Angels’ renewed emphasis this spring on plate discipline.
Cleanup batter Vladimir Guerrero, he of the nose-to-the-toes strike zone, is not about to abandon his free-swinging ways, and veteran center fielder Torii Hunter is probably too set in his ways to dramatically alter his aggressive approach at the plate.
But the younger players are more impressionable and seem to be grasping what Manager Mike Scioscia and batting instructor Mickey Hatcher have been preaching leading up to tonight’s season opener against the Oakland Athletics.
With more patience should come more production from players such as Kendrick, Aybar, Jeff Mathis and Kendry Morales, who is replacing slugger Mark Teixeira at first base.
And more production from these quarters, mixed with the veteran bats of Guerrero, Hunter, Bobby Abreu, Chone Figgins and Juan Rivera and the emerging power of Mike Napoli, could give the Angels one of their deepest and most potent lineups in years.
The Angels -- who have superb speed in Figgins and Aybar and very good speed in Abreu, Hunter and Kendrick -- have always pressured teams with aggressive baserunning, especially going from first base to third base on singles. And their power, though not overwhelming, is now spread throughout a lineup filled with 20-homer threats instead of concentrated in the middle.
With better plate discipline, the Angels should improve their on-base percentage, give their run-producers more opportunities to drive in runs and maximize their offensive potential.
“Get into hitter’s counts, and when you get a good pitch, swing at it,” Hatcher said, defining the Angels’ philosophy. “We’re trying not to create a guessing mode. You see that with some of the young guys. They’ll take ball one, and the next pitch, they’re ready to swing, no matter where it is.
“Don’t take a pitch just to take a pitch or swing at one just to swing. We want guys to swing at fastballs in the zone. That might be the first pitch. The big thing is, we don’t want to take the aggressiveness away from any of those guys.”
Over the winter, when reviewing statistics at every level of the organization, Scioscia said he saw “some alarming trends” in walk-to-strikeout ratios.
In the big league lineup, Kendrick (58 strikeouts, 12 walks), Aybar (45 strikeouts, 14 walks) and Mathis (90 strikeouts, 30 walks) stood out. As a team, the Angels finished 21st through 25th among 30 major league teams in walks in each of the last four seasons.
The Angels also finished last in the major leagues with an average of 3.65 pitches faced per plate appearance last season, with Guerrero (3.37) and Hunter (3.53) finishing in the bottom 11 among the 148 players who qualified for the batting title.
And no team in baseball, according to fangraphs.com, has swung at a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone in the last three seasons. Those figures: 28.9% in 2008, 31.2% in 2007 and 26.5% in 2006.
“Guys are more in tune with the things we struggled with last year,” Scioscia said. “Obviously, plate discipline is something that needs to be re-infused into some of our players, and I think they’re understanding it better.”
The first step to improving plate discipline, Scioscia said, is feeling comfortable with a two-strike approach, with hitting when behind in the count, and having the discipline to get back into counts, going from that 1-and-2 hole to 3 and 2.
“It’s different for everyone,” Scioscia said. “Some guys spread their stance with two strikes, some choke up, some shorten their path to the ball, some look to go opposite field, some foul off tough pitches. With experience, they’ll do a better job.”
They did this spring. In addition to leading the major leagues in average (.315), on-base percentage (.390) and runs (260), the Angels drew 146 walks in 35 spring games, an average of 4.17 per game. They averaged 2.97 walks per game last season.
Kendrick and Aybar each walked eight times this spring, more than half their totals for the entire 2008 season.
But walks, Scioscia and Hatcher say, should be a byproduct of better plate discipline, not the goal.
“It’s not just sitting up there looking at pitches -- that can be as counterproductive as hacking and slashing,” Scioscia said. “Sometimes, the first pitch is the best opportunity to square up a ball in the whole at-bat, and you have to be ready for it.”
Added Hatcher: “I don’t want them looking for walks. Walks will happen. I want them geared up for that fastball and to recognize the breaking balls and changeups.
“We know certain pitchers will try to make you fish. Aybar and Howie are really improving and doing a better job of understanding this. Guys are feeding off each other. It’s going to take time.”
But that time, for the Angels, needs to be now. With injuries ravaging the rotation -- John Lackey, Ervin Santana and Kelvim Escobar will open the season on the disabled list -- the offense may have to out-hit some of the Angels’ pitching shortcomings in April.
“They’re getting better with it, they’ve had great springs,” Hatcher said. “Hopefully, they can carry it into the season.”