Ike Davis’ Small Adjustments at the Plate Has Led to His Improved Results

June 18, 2012

With the New York Mets surprising most people around the game by playing solid baseball and using mostly young kids who are making minimum salaries, one hitter who wasn’t up to the standards of Mets fans was first baseman Ike Davis.

All the frustration on the talk radio shows and in the online media was that Davis should be sent down. The biggest reason was that the Mets were competing for first place, and after Davis slumped through a 1-18 stretch (8 Ks) which lowered his slash line to .158/.234/.273/.507 OPS, fans wanted Ike sent down to the minor leagues.

New York fans usually smell blood in the water towards a player after an 0-4 game in spring training, so this Davis futility was like a True Blood movie premiere.

The talk of sending Davis down had been around for a couple of weeks, but the Mets brass insisted Davis was staying with the parent club.

Since that 1 for 18 slide, Davis has gone on an eight game hitting streak, going 11-23 with two doubles, a home run and 7 RBI. He has had big hits within this span, including the double in the final game of the series against the Yankees and last Thursday’s RBI single against Tampa Bay which gave the Mets a 4-3 lead.

Hitting takes talent, but all hitters can improve if they do the correct things necessary for hitting. These include not drifting, keeping the hands “quiet,” having a short/quick swing and staying balanced. What Ike was doing for the majority of the early season was exactly the opposite. He was moving to the ball, excessively hitching his hands and pressing forward with his upper body.

During his hitting streak Ike just didn’t “start hitting.” He changed his approach to what he was originally doing, one that gives him a greater chance for success. This proper approach makes hitters successful at every level, from the major leagues all the way down to the Little Leagues.

When the ball is about to be released by the pitcher, the hitter begins his “load” to begin his swing. You have to go back in order to go forward. This is similar to having to bend your legs and squat down before you jump up in the air. The load could be a very slight weight shift to the back leg and small movement of the hands back, or it can be just a small toe tap and slight inward turn. An example of a near perfect load is what Curtis Granderson does or what Albert Pujols does.

DRIFTING

The hitter then takes his stride forward, gets his foot down (hands must stay back), recognizes the pitch and if he likes it, takes his swing. This process is so fast (less than a half-second), that all the movements must be in synch to make it work. If any part of the timing is off, hitting the ball hard will almost never happen.

The front leg must be solid, giving a sturdy base and the hitter’s weight must be against the front leg, not on top or over the front leg.

What Ike was doing was moving his body too far forward over his front foot, with his upper body pushing forward over his front leg. When the hitter moves forward towards the ball onto the front leg, it is known as drifting.

When many hitters get into a slump, drifting to the ball is one of the main reasons.

The more a hitter stands tall and almost upright in the batter’s box, the more susceptible he is to drifting. Ike used to be really tall in his stance, with no flex or bending of his knees. Now his knees are more flexed and his stance is slightly wider.

Just as important is that a hitter needs to wait on the ball and not move towards the pitch. I tell young hitters all the time to “wait for the pitch to get to you” and don’t go out to hit it. The ball will eventually get to your hitting zone. Ike was going out to get the ball and was not waiting for the ball to get to him.

Moving towards the ball forces the head to move, in essence making the ball appear faster.

Ike began to wait on the ball and hit against his front leg, not on it over it. Drifting to the ball curtails a hitters power.  Since the hitters weight is already forward, his legs are taken out of the swing. A hitter can’t rotate his hips as much, and power is derived primarily from hip rotation and lower body force. The force won’t be with you if the hitters weight is already forward.

With Ike drifting forward and not waiting on the ball, it led to a very weak swing, using mostly his arms, and not using his hands and legs. Good hitters hit with their hands, not their arms. With Ike not staying back and him having to reach for the ball (especially the ball away), Ike’s hands were extended away from his body and he began to roll over the ball.

That is why so many pitches turned into harmless ground balls to the right side. Robinson Cano did the same “rolling over” early in the season, too, when he was slumping.

A hitter needs his hands tight to the body to generate more power. Think about the last time you performed dumbbell curls for your biceps. Did you have your elbows away from your body or close to your body? They were close to the body, allowing you more strength to lift more weight. A hitter who keeps his hands tight to the body (think Cano and Granderson), generally have more bat speed, use their legs more and have more power. This is the hitting process incorporated by Kevin Long.

This is a video of Granderson’s home run against the Washington Nationals this past weekend. Contact is made at the four-second mark of that video on MLB.com. Pause it there. Check out how tight the hands (and back elbow) are to his body, allowing the Grandy Man (who also uses great lower body torque) to get on top of and drive a high fastball. His balance is perfect and there is no drift of the weight forward.

EXCESS HAND MOVEMENT

Ike had a pretty severe hitch in his swing, a pre-swing up and down movement with his hands, exacerbated by a circular motion. While hitches are mostly bad, all hitches aren’t necessarily problematic. Barry Bonds had a hitch, but he ended up getting his hands in the power position when the ball was on its way. Granderson has some excess movement, too, but like Bonds he has his hands set when the pitch is released.  

Davis rarely got his hands set before the ball arrived.

Slight hand movement is good as it helps ease tension in the upper body, but excess movement is often not good. Ike’s hitch led to a timing issue where his hands were still moving when the ball was released and he wasn’t able to get the bat to the ball quickly enough.

Combined with his drifting, Ike was in no position to drive the ball.

With these hitting issues, the only pitch you can hit is the pitch over the plate, as hard stuff inside “gets in your kitchen,” and the result is a swinging strike or jam shot. Hitters then tend to look for only pitches over the plate and take those inside pitches.

At the beginning of his career, Ike had movement but not the severe hitch he had earlier this year. Now, while some up and down movement is still there, Ike has lessened his hitch and his hands are mostly finished moving when the ball is released. I would still rather have Davis eliminate the hitch completely (its one of the easier “faults” to fix), and like Granderson does, having only a slight movement back. This would allow his hands to be even quicker on fastballs up and on the inside part of the plate.

BALANCE

When Ike was drifting out forward and had his arms move out over the plate, many times his upper body bent forward at the waist, leaving Davis is an unbalanced position. Hitting coaches call this “a forward press with torso.”

This forward movement, which is different from drifting, further deceased his ability to hit for power. When a hitter takes his stride, whether it be an actual movement forward of a couple of inches or a lifting of his front foot up and down (like Granderson and Pujols), the upper body must be on top of the lower body. This allows the hitter to be balanced before, during and after the swing.

Balance, in addition to not drifting, is important to help generate power with the legs.

In proper balance, think of the hitter as a building with a steeple (upper body) on top of the foundation (the legs). The midpoint is the waist. Throughout the swing, the steeple always needs to stay on top of its foundation. If it doesn’t, the foundation cannot support the steeple, and the building becomes weak.

If the hitter doesn’t stay balanced, the body is not strong throughout the swing.

As mentioned earlier, Ike is more flexed in his knees to help stop his drifting. Staying balanced is also easier if the knees are flexed. Ike now has a slightly wider stance with his knees flexed (like Granderson and Pujols) which helps control drift and balance, leading to better contact and more power.

See how precise hitting a baseball is? One hitting fault can create more faults, which creates havoc with the chain of events a hitter needs to have success.

I remember when I was in the last years of playing baseball ( I was 42). I found myself always drifting to the ball and getting chewed up inside and had to “cheat” with my swing to hit the good fastball. With the help of Lenny Webster, former major leaguer and hitting instructor, he helped me widen my stance, sit down more (like Pujols does), which eliminated my drift. I could then wait on the ball more, and I began to hit for more power.

Just like Ike Davis has done, I made adjustments to be a better hitter.

Good hitters really don’t change anything major to their swings; they just make little adjustments along the way.

Look at Ike earlier this season against Tim Lincecum. (He is shown at the 15 and 25 second marks.) Remember this game of two Ks and the big double play? Ike was taller, drifted forward and although he was balanced, he took inside fastballs for both Ks which he couldn’t handle with the excess hand movement. He was looking for pitches over the plate he could handle.

Now look at Davis last week against Tampa Bay: The adjustments are slight, but the knee flex is there, as is a slightly wider stance, improving his balance and helping eliminate the drifting.

How about this game-tying double against the Yankees?  The hand movement is there, but the hands get set in time, he doesn’t drift forward and his swing balance is perfect.

I am surprised the Mets hitting coach, Dave Hudgens, didn’t change these faults with Davis earlier, but it is very difficult to change hitters from their lifelong habits. Especially major league hitters who have had success doing what they “have always done.” Hudgens is a well-respected hitting coach. In addition, as the old saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

The reason why Long has had success with guys like Granderson, Cano, Nick Swisher and Raul Ibanez is they were likely willing students receptive to making changes. These changes do not happen overnight.

It might be that these slight adjustments made by Davis were weeks in the making, which would be a credit to both he and Hudgens. I still would like to see Davis eliminate more hand movements and get his hands tighter to his body to generate a shorter bat path to the ball. But right now, Davis is moving in the right direction, which will help him produce more in the Mets lineup.

And keep him out of Buffalo.


Why Work The Count When Attacking the First Pitch Yields Better Results?

June 15, 2012

In watching yesterday’s New York Mets – Tampa Bay Rays game, one big part of the game was when Lucas Duda came up against Jeremy Hellickson in the fourth inning of a tight game. The Mets were already leading 6-4, runners were on first and second with two outs. Rays manager Joe Maddon opted to not bring a lefty from the bullpen to face the lefty hitting Duda, whose OPS is 170 points better facing RHP.

After a brief mound trip by the Rays pitching coach, Duda launched Hellickson’s first pitch of the at bat over the center fielders head for a two-run double, essentially icing the game. Even in the fourth inning, this double gave the Mets an 89% expectancy of winning.

When attacking the first pitch of an at bat in 2012, Duda is hitting .556/.455/1.667/2.121 OPS, with a BABIP of only .250. Yes, those are correct numbers. Main reason is that Duda has banged out three HRs (and yesterday’s double) when attacking the first pitch of an at bat. In those situations, Duda produces no BABIP, but great slugging percentages. Granted it is only 11 PAs, but Duda also has an OPS of 1.128 in his career (47 PAs) when going after the first pitch (4 HRs, 3 2Bs).

When Johan Santana made his first start after his no-hitter, he gave up six runs on four HRs to the cross-town New York Yankees, a game the Mets lost 9-1. Two Hrs were hit by Robinson Cano, who blasted both two-run HRs on the first pitch seen from Santana in each at bat.

When putting the first pitch of any at bat into play this season (41 PAs), Cano is hitting .425/.415/.725/1.140 OPS, with 3 2Bs and 3 HRs. In his career on the first pitch (822 PAs), Cano has an OPS of .953, over 100 points higher than his career OPS and 200 points higher than his career OPS after he is down 0-1 in the count.

So, why do I constantly see many hitters taking a first, very hittable pitch right down the middle? Why do they do this?

Automatically taking strike one might boost up a starters pitch count over time, but is it better to take pitches to add to a pitch count in order to put yourself in a hole you may never get out?

The saber stat crowd constantly talks about good hitters as those who take pitches, work the count, driving the starters pitch count up and “take their walks.” However, the best method of putting up good numbers is attacking the first good, hittable pitch you see in the at bat. I believe it is better to knock out a pitcher based upon hitting them hard as opposed to working their pitch counts up. Plus, the first pitch of an at bat is many times the best pitch you might see in the entire at bat.

After they are down 0-1 in a count (usually by taking the first pitch for a strike), Duda’s slash line is a less robust .243/.287/.375/.662 OPS and Cano’s drops to .283/.304/.462/.766 OPS. Cano’s is not horrible (better than a lot of hitters overall) but is still almost 200 points lower.

Over their careers, the numbers are great for virtually every player who puts the first pitch of any plate appearance into play. Over their careers, the current Yankee lineup averages 278 points higher in their OPS when hitting the first pitch, over when they start out 0-1 in the count.

What is horrible is when these two hitters (and, in fact, ALL hitters ever), get two strikes on them. Over his career with two strikes on him, Duda hits .184/.245/.291/.536 OPS although his BABIP is an above average .311. Cano plummets to .234/.274/.378/.652 OPS with a BABIP of .320.

With two strikes on him, Duda is 270 points less than his career OPS and over 600 points less than his OPS when he hits the first pitch! With two strikes, Cano is almost 200 points less than his career OPS, and 300 points less than when he hits the first pitch.

Widely considered the two best hitters in baseball, Josh Hamilton has an OPS of 1.189 on the first pitch and .629 with two strikes, while Joey Votto’s numbers are 1.166 and .676.

Those are huge differences with even the best hitters in the game.

So, again, why do hitters take good, hittable strikes right over the middle of the plate? The pitcher is trying to get ahead in the count and wants to throw strike one. So why don’t hitters want to attack the first pitch more often?

I call the 0-0 count the attack count, the 0-1 count is the guess/defensive count and the two strikes count are the salvage counts, except maybe 3-2. When taking the first strike and getting down in the count, a hitter then becomes a defensive hitter. After two strikes, unless a major mistake is made by the pitcher, a hitter basically needs to put the ball in play and hope for the best. At this point, the pitcher can throw any pitch he wants, anywhere he wants. The pitcher doesn’t have to throw a strike to get a hitter out. And strikeouts galore happen when hitters get behind in the count.

Why allow the pitcher to get one half of the way (strike one) on the first pitch towards your worst chance for being productive, which is the two strike count?

Hitters are told to “work the count” and try to “get on base.” Getting on base is great and high OBPs are huge benchmarks for quality offenses, but there is a reason why batting average comprises the far biggest component of the OBP stat. Attack pitches which give you the best chance to get on base, which are many times the first pitch of an at bat.

Many people have derided the 2012 Yankees for their inability to hit with runners in scoring position. This goes to show that the RBI is still the most important offensive stat in the game of baseball. I don’t care how many times you get guys on base, it is absolutely important to have hitters who can drive those runs in. It is always much tougher to hit with runner on base than it is to get on base.

This plays into a hitters (and pitchers) mindset during a particular at bat. Nervousness, too many thoughts in the head and an overall “big moment” syndrome can overcome hitters, even a major league veteran. Do you think that David Freese wasn’t feeling it during the 9th inning of Game 6 in last year’s World Series? I don’t care what the results were; the guy was feeling major pressure. With only 100 million people watching, the entire World Series outcome was resting on his shoulders.

Yeah, that might be pressure.

Those pressure factors in a big plate appearance are dismissed by the saber crowd, likely because these variables cannot be tabulated, valued and quantified.

But to become a productive hitter, it is vitally important to be ready to hit and attack the first good strike you see, not work the count to get in a deep hole, especially when a hitter is in a slump. When a hitter is ready to swing, he becomes a more productive hitter. Hitters who go up to the plate looking for the first pitch they can drive and get that pitch, usually do drive the ball. Most slugging percentages of hitters who attack the 0-0 count pitch are substantially higher than their career rates.

See, most (like 99.9%) of all major league hitters have better numbers when they put the first pitch of a plate appearance into play. Almost all of them…..in the entire history of the game.

Look at the numbers of the player which sabermetricians completely agree is the worst player in modern times: Yuniesky Betancourt. Yuni has a career slash line of .269/.293/.392/.684 OPS in over 3700 PAs. That equates to an OPS+ of 83. Betancourt has never had a season which his OPS is completely league average, or 100.

But when Betancourt puts the first pitch in play (likely a pitch down the middle or where he was looking for the ball), his career slash line is .302/.300/.462/.762 OPS. When going after the first pitch, Betancourt’s OPS is almost 80 points higher. That may not seem like much of an improvement, and it’s really not relative to most other hitter’s improvements when going after the first pitch, but Yuniesky is such an overall bad hitter. However, he is much better (especially his SLG percentage) when attacking the first hittable pitch in a PA.

Even teams who attack the first pitch have better overall numbers in this situation. The 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates are considered the worst hitting team this season. They have overall numbers of .226/.279/.361/.640 OPS, but these numbers are .282/.287/.487/.774 OPS when hitting the first pitch of an at bat.

I am not advocating swinging incessantly at the first pitch for the sake of doing so. These productive numbers shown above are due to getting a good pitch to hit on the 0-0 count, looking to hit in this count, and driving the ball when you get your pitch. If the pitcher is trying to throw strike one, why let him get it unopposed? I understand sometimes getting fooled on a pitch (looking fastball, then getting curve) or fouling off the first pitch can get a hitter in a hole, but a hitter should attack a pitch he can drive.

Hitters can be selective and work a count, but it should be done to benefit your at bat rather than trying to drive up a starter’s pitch count. One of the reasons Mark Trumbo of the Los Angeles Angels is having a much better year is because he is more selective at the plate, not swinging at everything, but when he gets a 0-0 count pitch in his zone, he attacks. When going after the first pitch this season, Trumbo is hitting .458/.480/.958/1.148.

I’ll take that slash line over “working the count” every time. Seems like Trumbo’s OBP is pretty good.

Although sometimes going after the first pitch even if it is out of the strike zone**can have good results, Trumbo is not swinging at first pitches off the plate anymore, forcing pitchers to come back over the plate early. And that is another major positive of attacking first pitches. Pitchers will adjust and throw balls off the plate. When a hitters takes pitch, it puts him in eaven a better position to produce.

**In fact, Cano’s second home run off Santana in that game was a high slider out of the zone. But Cano was looking for something to hit, got it and pounced. Even when the pitch is out of the zone, Cano hit a bomb. Why? Because he was looking to hit and was aggressive on a pitch he could drive.

Best plan of attack might be to look at a smaller location WITHIN THE STRIKE ZONE and then hitting that pitch. When a hitter is looking for a pitch in a certain location, it is much easier to turn on an inside fastball, or go the other way on a pitch on the outer third. If the pitch is not in your location, then let it go. Looking location then swinging at a pitch outside this location is when swinging at the first pitch likely gets you out.

Swinging the bat, and not looking for walks, drives in runs. So when runners are on base, and you have the chance to drive them in, look for the first pitch in your zone which you can drive and attack. Being an aggressive hitter on the 0-0 count at pitches in your zone produces tremendous results, which helps your statistics and your team win games.


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