Guessing game

John Smoltz did a pretty good job of analyzing what everybody could see last night during game five of the World Series–everybody, that is, who wasn’t occupying a spot in the Cub dugout. What Smoltz diagnosed was Cleveland’s strategy with Baez at the plate. Throw him a first-pitch strike, Smoltz said, and then throw him chase pitches after that. After one strike, Baez would reliably swing at anything. That seemed to be Cleveland’s strategy, and Baez played true to form every time.

If Cleveland can tell its pitchers how to approach a hitter, then why can’t the Cubs say something to Baez? Why can’t they give him a script to follow? Here is a script that might have changed the odds at least somewhat in our favor: you, Javy Baez, may swing at the first pitch, but after that you must keep the bat on your shoulder for three pitches or one called strike, whichever comes first.

Whose job is it to rein in Baez, to curb his improvisational tendencies? I’ve heard Maddon say that he doesn’t give advice to his hitters. (He’s not Dale Sveum.) Not that he doesn’t have advice, but he doesn’t think it wise to get between a player and his skills coach, whether it’s hitting or pitching. The job of giving in-game instruction to Baez belongs to Mallee, the hitting coach.

I’ve been tempted to write about Mallee for several months now. I thought he should be fired, simply because the Cubs had a huge investment in Heyward and Mallee wasn’t helping him. Even if Mallee was giving helpful advice to everyone else in the lineup, Heyward was the one who mattered because he can’t be traded or benched. If the Cubs need to fire a hitting coach every season for the next seven years while they wait for Heyward to get back on track, so be it. Hitting coaches are fungible, expendable.

So it was nothing personal against Mallee, although, watching Baez the last several games, it’s starting to get personal. I have an observation or two to add to Smoltz’s.

Baez does frequently swing at first pitches, and they are usually fastball strikes; but he doesn’t do much with them. Invariably, he swings late at first-pitch fastballs. I’m no hitting coach, and I can’t break a swing down and analyze its components. But hitting is not all physical; and pitchers are mostly taking advantage of a weakness in Baez’s “approach,” a mental component of his game.

I think you have a better chance of hitting a fastball–of not being late–if you’re “looking fastball.” This means that you guess a little, and maybe cheat a little. You sell out, with the result that the swing might be early and awkward if you guessed wrong and the pitch is a breaking ball. But so what, it’s strike one, the same as if you had swung late on a fastball. Baez is a natural, instinctive player who, on the defensive side, where events happen somewhat randomly and unexpectedly, succeeds by letting the game come to him. In the batter’s box, the pitcher is not behaving randomly, trying to throw strikes and missing by a little here and a little there. He may purposely throw a pitch in the dirt, outside, followed by another similar pitch. And then another. He is following a plan. Baez needs a plan, if only so that he can put himself in the pitcher’s shoes and ask himself, If you were the pitcher, would you throw Javy Baez a strike on oh-and-two (or one-and-two or two-and-two)?

Baez needs a counter-plan. He needs help. No one is giving it to him. He can’t hear Smoltz. If he’s hearing anyone, it’s Mallee: apparently the sound of silence.

This business of chronically being late on fastballs also applies to Heyward. That’s interesting, since they have the same coach. Unlike Baez, Heyward seems very bright, cerebral even; but that doesn’t mean he’s not hearing, and giving himself, bad advice. Let’s assume that Heyward’s problem, like Baez’s first-pitch problem, is that he’s not “looking fastball” and not timing fastballs as though they were flung by a pitching machine dialed up to 96. As a thought experiment, imagine Heyward selling out on fastballs for at least a couple of pitches per at-bat. Don’t you think, under those circumstances, this huge fellow would occasionally square up a fastball and hit a bomb? Heyward hit seven home runs this year, one each in July, August and September. His longest traveled 401 feet. You can see it here. It landed in about the fifth row above the 368 sign in left-center in Wrigley. In summary: in 592 plate appearances, Heyward hit one ball 400 feet.

Dexter Fowler is an interesting contrast to Heyward. He’s a stringbean to Heyward’s jolly green giant. Fowler knows who he is, what he’s trying to accomplish. Basically, he tries never to swing at a ball. Like Heyward a big target, Fowler walked 79 times in 2016 compared to Heyward’s 54 (in 41 more PAs). In order to do that, Fowler must never be caught guessing. He’s not looking fastball, so when he gets one he has to catch up to it, which he is often able to do with his very quick late swing. Against Kluber the other day, Fowler hit two fastballs about as well as he can, but just was able to drive them to medium right field. Even so, he hits twice as many home runs as Heyward, but the pitches I see him really getting his body into are breaking balls, where he simply has more time to get everything moving in the same direction.

Heyward is trapped somewhere between Dexter Fowler and the slugger everybody has always wanted him to be. Today he is Fowler without the quick swing. He refuses to “look fastball.” He could probably do some damage on an offspeed pitch if someone would ever put one in his wheelhouse, but why would that ever happen?

Hitting with power is not rocket science, but it is a guessing game. A hitter may need to be coached on how to think like a pitcher and make an educated guess about what’s coming.

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