Early Wednesday afternoon, while many people were celebrating Cinco De Mayo by pounding down Corona’s, New York Yankee outfielder Nick Swisher was pounding this second inning pitch for a solo home run.
It was Swisher’s fifth home run of the year and his 17th RBI.
Nick is slashing .295 BA/.380 OBP/.547 SLG/.927 OPS right now.
You may be saying what is the big deal. Swisher was slashing .312/.430/.714/1.144 OPS at the end of April last season, but went into a big funk and ended up with a .249/.371/.498/.869 OPS.
They were all good numbers and the best overall season of his career. But Swisher is a more complete hitter at this point of the season and his career.
Why? He is swinging at more pitches in the strike zone. But not just any pitches in the zone, but high quality pitches to hit.
Last season, Swisher swung at 56.7 percent of strikes thrown to him, but is swinging at 68.9 percent thus far this season. While that has lowered his pitches per at bat (4.27 in 2009, 4.06 in 2010) and his walk rate (16 percent in 2009, 10% in 2010), his line drive percentage has improved from 16 percent to 24 percent.
His contact rate has improved to 83 percent and, consequently, his strike out percentage has fallen (25 percent to 19 percent).
Swisher, as well as Nick Johnson and other “walk machines” often take pitches just for the sake of taking them, mostly to run up pitch counts. Many times when you “work the pitcher,” you end up working yourself back to the bench.
It is very tough to take pitches, get to a two-strike count and still have a productive at bat. Many hitters are not comfortable hitting with two strikes. They tend to swing at more bad pitches in two-strike counts, getting themselves out.
But while Swisher hits better than most with two-strike counts, he still took too many good pitches earlier in the count which he should have attacked.
And that is the key. Swisher is attacking the ball this season. His approach has changed to attack the ball, but he still has that good eye to not swing at pitches which would cause him to have bad at bats.
One aspect of hitting that does not get any attention in over-zealous statistical analysis is the mental approach. When hitters get in their mind to be aggressive at the plate and they get a good pitch to hit, fireworks are inevitable. Success at being aggressive gives way to long hot streaks at the plate.
However, slumps usually cause the hitter to be indecisive in his swing selection, often causing mini-slumps to further spiral downward.
When I was playing in college and afterwards in semi-pro summer leagues, and slumping a bit, I suggested to be the hitting part of a hit-and-run, which always forced me to swing the bat at the pitch.
That aggressive approach is great for the mental aspect of hitting.
So are mechanical aspects and the hard work needed to implement them.
I was talking with Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long in mid-January, and he said Swisher was working out all winter in Arizona with him to stay balanced throughout the swing, helping his ability to more consistently hit the ball harder.
The picture accompanying this piece shows Swisher with perfect power-hitting mechanics.
Long also worked with Swisher on the mental approach, not to avoid walking to get on base, but to attack hittable pitches in the strike zone, especially earlier in the count with men on base.
The point is when men are on base, the job of a power hitter is to go after pitches they can drive in order to knock in those runs. Swisher has done that, slashing with men on base at a rate of .340/.415/.596/1.011 OPS so far in 2010.
Long said Swisher would hit “at least .280 this season, with more run production” due to improving his hitting mechanics and with his more aggressive approach.
The “book” on Swisher is that he takes pitches, many of them hittable strikes. But Swisher is changing the cover of that book, going after pitches earlier and more often.
That approach has helped his current season batting average (.295) and slugging percentage (.547), but has not hindered his on base percentage, which, at .380, is higher than what he was at last season (.371) and in his career (.358).
Not bad for a guy who always known as a Moneyball walk machine.
However, the key for the rest of 2010 and beyond is when Major League pitchers (and the advance scouts who follow the Yankees) adjust to Swisher’s more aggressive approach. They will begin to pitch him differently than they have been this first five weeks of the 2010 season.
Does Swisher then begin to swing at less than ideal pitches, or does he remain patient and continue to aggressively attack pitches in his hitting zone.
My money is on Swisher to continue his patiently, aggressive approach, and to keep producing runs for the Yankees.
When that happens, they can save a fortune by not needing to sign free agent Jayson Werth.