Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs had a brief conversation recently with Tigers’ right fielder, J.D. Martinez, in which Martinez expressed his scorn for the ground ball. Of course, Martinez, who famously rebuilt his swing and approach during the 2013-2014 offseason, has good reason. His bread and butter is in the air. The breakout that made him one of the more feared hitters in the game was built, in part, by driving the ball in the air for far more power than he’d managed during his days with the Houston Astros.
The concept, simplistic as it sounds, is rapidly gaining traction around the game. Clint Hurdle, manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, one of the more saber-savvy organizations in the game, recently made some waves by telling his players that “their OPS is in the air.” Josh Donaldson preaches the concept as the key to his late breakout, as well. Does it work for everyone?
An overwhelming number of coaches from the little league level to the pros, have long taught players to try to hit line drives. Matching the trajectory of the pitch is fundamental to mainstream hitting instruction. Former Tigers’ hitting coach Wally Joyner was perfectly orthodox in asking his players to spend part of their BP sessions driving the ball on a line back into the protective net on the mound. There may be good reason for this, namely that most players simply do not, and will not, possess the power of a J.D. Martinez or Josh Donaldson.
This may not work for everyone. But, for players like Martinez, Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and other late breakout wunderkind, hitting the ball in the air unlocked the power they already had. Of course, there was a lot more to it than that.
Martinez in particular, whose swing changes have drawn so much ink, did a lot more than just try to lift the ball more often. He completely changed his swing in order to keep his bat in the hitting zone longer, in part by studying Miguel Cabrera. He also stopped trying to pull the ball, in contrast to Donaldson, for example.
Instead, he taught himself to lead with the knob of the bat and to hold that angle between the bat and his arms deeper into his swing path. His footwork changed. His stance changed. For other hitters more secure in their job than Martinez was, taking a leap like that with their swing may feel too risky.
Astros outfielder J.D. Martinez didn’t tinker with his swing this winter. He blew the whole thing up.
“I changed everything,” Martinez said. “From my hands to my feet, my leg kick, my stride, my load — just everything.”
“I had held my hands high and had an early foot stride with a wide stance,” Martinez said. “I dropped my hands low, got a smoother stride and a straighter stance.”[…]“I like to get the ball up in the air,” he said. “If I get the ball in the air, there’s a chance it will go out or be a double. Everything’s been working for me.”
These are Martinez’ quotes from former FanGraphs prospect reporter, Dan Farnsworth’s prescient article about him in Dec. 2013. Intent to mash fly balls is one thing, but the changes Martinez underwent took some guts and a lot of work. He was a player in obvious need of a change. Latent bone-crushing power helps, as well. We’ll have to see if the home run barrage continues in the coming years to know how many players can do the same.
Martinez’ swing changes are still instructive in other ways, in terms of generating more hard contact. But a revolution in hitting instruction based around fly balls may not work for everyone. So, before you start challenging your kids’ little league coaches on their hitting philosophy, ask yourself how many balls they hit with an exit velocity of 90 mph or higher. For players who do not, and in particular those with above average speed, the old concepts of hitting the ball on a line, and running out a lot of ground balls, probably still apply.
Tigres de Venezuela
Obviously, Team Venezuela is well represented by numerous Detroit Tigers, Miguel Cabrera chief among them. Cabrera appears driven to give his struggling homeland something to come together around with a strong performance in the World Baseball Classic. The sense of serious purpose has been echoed by players like Jose Altuve, Salvador Perez, Victor Martinez, and Carlos Gonzalez, among others. Which is music to manager Omar Vizquel’s ears, no doubt. Team Venezuela will get underway as part of Pool D on Friday, when they take on Puerto Rico.
As long as Miggy is having fun, we’re happy.
Team USA will also get underway on Friday, in a clash pitting the Tampa Bay Rays’ Chris Archer against Columbia’s Jose Quintana. Should be a fun matchup. For his part, Archer expressed his concern about the current political climate, and the hope that a successful WBC run will give American fans something fun to unite around. We’re getting a little bit of an Olympic vibe. The way the Tigers’ spring training has gone so far, it’s nice to see games that count for something.
Plus, Ian Kinsler is playing.
Of course the surprise of the tournament thus far, has been Team Israel, which has ripped off an improbable 3-0 start. After watching them crush a favored Taipei squad earlier in the week, their progress will be of interest as the opening round wraps up. Others are less surprised at Team Israel’s success.
Meanwhile, Isabelle Minasian, over at the Hardball Times took an interesting look at the past, purpose, and potential future of the tournament.
Adam Dorhauer at Hardball Times picks an All-World team, starting with pitchers and bench players. The Yankees have young hitting talent, but what is the optimal lineup construction? Thoracic outlet syndrome and what to expect from Matt Harvey. And a look at the forgotten man among the Tigers’ young starting pitchers. We haven’t forgotten him.
Ian Kinsler’s fielding clinic with Rod Allen
It’s an oldie, but fun to see Ian breaking down his moves for Rod Allen.