Editor's note: Tigers' radio broadcaster Dan Dickerson is submitting a series of interviews he conducted over the 2018 season. His first installment was with Mud Hens' manager Doug Mientkiewicz. We're thrilled Dan can bring us this incredible and unique insight gathered over the course of the regular season.
One of two major pieces Bill James wrote for his 2019 Handbook prompted the idea for my second installment of Transcripts From My Favorite Interviews of 2018.
The article is titled "The Natural Trendlines," and starts with this: "OK, that stupid ‘Launch Angle' thing didn't work; what do we do now?" Bill goes on to detail what he deemed were the four essential elements of the launch angle "fad," which he says has not worked, and has pretty much "played itself out." Far be it for me to argue with the Godfather of Sabermetrics, but I just found myself disagreeing - strongly - with his assessment. With his belief that the Launch Angle Craze only "changed the game a little," "didn't really do any good," and so it's no surprise that its time is coming to an end.
We all know the seminal figure in leading the launch angle phenomenon is J.D. Martinez. Martinez - against all odds - completely retooled his swing in his mid-20s to go from major league washout to one of the best hitters in the game. Most of you know the story: Martinez career changed in 2013 after talking with his teammate, Jason Castro, about how he had changed his swing. Castro put J.D. in touch with his swing coaches following the 2013 season, then the hard work J.D. put in that winter resulted in an incredible breakout season in 2014.
Martinez's coaches - Craig Wallenbrock and Robert Van Scoyoc (just hired as the Dodger's hitting coach) - were not teaching some radical, new-fangled style of hitting. They're adherents of the Ted Williams style of hitting, laid out in great detail in Williams book, The Science of Hitting. Which was published in 1971. Launch Angle has been around for a long time. It was just recently given a new name.
The basics are sound: you're trying to get your bat into the strike zone on the best possible path, to stay in the strike zone as long as possible, so you can hit the widest variety of pitches as consistently hard as possible. Sounds simple, right? But the details of how you do it - and the work involved - are dauntingly complex. Much has been written about J.D.'s approach - two of the best articles I have read were both by the very talented Alex Speier of the Boston Globe. They were written just before the season (https://apps.bostonglobe.com/sports/graphics/2018/01/launch-angle/),
and two months into the season (https://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2018/05/24/martinez-and-art-and-science-swing/RoOjAFNnX8kFKZM05vVvhP/story.html. As far as I can tell, both are accessible without a subscription. You may have to sign up for a newsletter to read one).
Even if you're not interested in the granular details of Martinez's swing, both articles are fascinating reads - and remind you of the logic behind the swing, and why "launch angle" is anything but a fad. As Josh Donaldson told Martinez -"you're not a ball-hitter, you're a plane-matcher." J.D., who says he's always been good at math, and who looked at a baseball swing as an attempt to match angles, thought Donaldson's description made perfect sense.
Which brings us to today's conversation. I've gotten to know Tigers' hitting coach Lloyd McClendon quite well through the years. Whether he's teaching veterans, or (now) mostly youngsters, his philosophy has remained the same: he wants to lead the league in doubles every year.
Because that's a line drive, gap-to-gap approach that works for most hitters. And his offenses have lead the league in doubles - or at least finished in the Top 3 - many, many times. McClendon's offenses are almost always in the Top 3 in line drive percentage (including this past season, with a poor Tigers' offense). McClendon teaches the concepts behind launch angle, but he has always emphasized one thing - it's not for everybody. And thanks to tools like Rapsodo and Blast, which measure launch angle and exit velocities, Lloyd can show hitters - while he works with them in the batting cage - which approach works best for them. He can quickly show his guys who can realistically think about hitting an opposite field home run, and who should never hit a ball in the air to the opposite field.
One of the biggest problem McClendon sees in today's game is that young hitters want to jump right to launch angle -and hitting home runs - without learning some of the basics first. Like knowing the strike zone, understanding what pitchers are trying to do to them, and controlling the barrel of the bat.
As baseball has witnessed an explosion of both home runs and strikeouts, I think Lloyd's approach to hitting works, and will serve young Tigers' hitters well in the years ahead. The key - as he and many other hitting coaches have talked about - is teaching some of the basics in the minor leagues. It's awfully tough to make changes and adjustments at the major league level.
I talked with "Mac" throughout the season about how he teaches hitting, and how things have change for him in recent years, as he works with a new generation of hitters. The following comes from four different interviews, blended together in an attempt to make a coherent conversation about topics we returned to several times over the course of six months.
Dan Dickerson: You told me a long time ago that your philosophy on hitting stems from a simple goal, something you tell your players every year, that you want to lead the league in doubles. Why do you start with that?
Lloyd McClendon: If you do that, that means you have a pretty good offense, because that means you're using foul line to foul line to attack the baseball. When you do that, you give yourself a lot more of a chance to be successful, instead of just a pull-oriented team that might hit a lot of home runs, but strikes out a lot too. If you're thinking gap to gap, you're using the entire field to hit, and you're putting pressure on the defense. Doubles score runners from first base. I know the home run is great - and we have some guys who can do that - but all of our guys should be able to hit doubles.
DD: What's been the biggest surprise for you - as you're teaching young players to hit (as opposed to veterans) - that you had to teach that maybe you hadn't done in a while?
LM: The biggest surprise for me - and in talking with other hitting coaches, it's clear this is an industry-wide problem - is, we're inheriting bad hitters. And it starts in high school, then college and on through the minor league system. And I say that because of this phenomenon of launch angle. And I think we have to be really careful with this. What I'm trying to stress particularly when we have our organizational meetings - is that, just because the industry is buying into this, doesn't mean we as an organization need to buy into this. We need to define what we want as an organization And quite frankly, for me, being the hitting instructor, we need good hitters. We need young men who can use foul line to foul line. We need young men who can choke up with two strikes and put the ball in play with a man on third base. We need young men who know how to hit and run, know how to protect the plate in big situations, and not strike out. And when they master those things, then we can graduate to more advanced concepts like launch angle.
I just think a foundation is so important. I liken it to raising a child. You give a child a good foundation for what is right and what is wrong, and how to go about your business. If you try to teach that kid those things at 15 years old, and not when he was a child, it's too late. And the same thing happens when we have kids coming thru our system, and all they're worried about hitting home runs and putting the ball in the air - and striking out doesn't mean anything. It's awfully hard to teach at this level and correct things at this level - not because we don't know what we're talking about, but because they have to face the best of the best every day when it comes to pitching. And to try to get them to make adjustments is very difficult.
DD: What are things you think about daily when it comes to teaching young hitters: the mental side, the physical side, or both?
LM: I think it's a combination of both. A lot of these guys don't have the trust factor, because they don't have the experience to base it on. Particularly when it comes to pitchers, knowledge of pitchers, what they're going to try to do to you in certain situations, and that can be frustrating. And it can be challenging for a lot of them, particularly in big situations. So, every day, you have to rebuild that confidence, and build that foundation until they get that book put together, where they have that knowledge and experience of doing this against guys who've been here a while.
DD: What are the most important concepts you would like to see taught in the minor leagues?
LM: You have to have knowledge of the strike zone, the ability to play with the ball, move it around, foul line to foul line. You have to know how to shorten your swing - a two strike approach to protect the plate. It really matters, particularly with runners in scoring position. And when we talk about "The Tiger Way" - how we're going to teach these concepts - it's important to put the right language in. Because if you can't reach a kid, you can't teach a kid. That relationship is very important in terms of how you go about your business, and how you win kids over.
DD: You predicted last year that the high fastball would be pitching's answer to hitters changing their swings -you called it the "kryptonite" for launch angle. Are we seeing that? And does your approach mitigate against that?
LM: The numbers don't lie - the stats show that pitchers are pitching up in the zone. I've talked to our pitchers, and pitchers around the league, and they laugh when you talk about launch angle. Listen, I get it - launch angle is great for guys who can hit the ball out foul line to foul line. But when I'm talking to guys like [Dixon] Machado or [Jose] Iglesias, I'm not talking about going to right field in the air - that's a fly ball out. That doesn't make sense. I just believe, particularly with runners in scoring position, you have to be able to put the ball in play, and you have to be able to do it consistently.
DD: Will we see more teams start to emphasize more contact? How important is it?
LM: I can't speak for other teams, but I know what I believe, I know what's best for this club, and I know what my manager wants - and that's contact with runners in scoring position. Listen, launch angle is great, we teach it, we work on it, particularly with guys who can hit it out of the ballpark. But guys who aren't going to hit the ball out of the ballpark, I don't want to see the ball in the air. I want to see line drive doubles, foul line to foul line, and I want to see them take advantage of the shift by moving the ball around.
DD: You hear a lot of hitting coaches talk about "controlling the barrel" of the bat. What do you mean when you talk about that?
LM: This is something Al Kaline and I have talked about - something he talked about when he played. Controlling the barrel, protecting the plate - particularly with two strikes and runners in scoring position. A lot of our kids, throughout the league, don't know where the barrel is, or don't realize the barrel is going in and out of the strike zone so fast, so quick - that you can't cover the plate. I tell our hitters your path should be able to cover four tees (four balls set up on four batting tees in a straight line over plate). If you're not controlling the barrel, and it's not lagging like it should lag thru the strike zone - he may only cover one of them. That equates to a higher strikeout rate and lower production.
DD: So how do you get that feel if you don't have it - the feel for where it is, and how to get it into the strike zone on the best path?
LM: There is no shortcut. It takes hard work, it takes repetition, and it takes a routine that you develop with your instructor that you do daily, a routine that will sustain you throughout the season. And that's what we're all about, starting in spring training. We develop routines for each individual that's tailored to his needs to help him survive a grueling major league or minor league schedule.
DD: Isn't J.D. Martinez a good example of that - how hard he works at his routine every day?
LM: Sure - and my guy is Miguel Cabrera. When he's healthy, he's in there every day, does his five-minute routine that prepares him for every game. It reminds him about his swing, and where his slot needs to be, and how he can get there.
DD: So, it's all about getting the barrel of the bat to where it can stay the longest in the strike zone, and be able to react to as many pitches as possible?
LM: Well, when you do that, and do it correctly, you can react to many variables in the strike zone because the barrel is always in a position to attack them....you're not committing the barrel - when you commit the barrel to a pitch that you think is going to be outside and the ball sinks in, you have no chance of hitting it.
DD: Can young hitters get that feel with enough repetition?
LM: Oh, yeah, you'll have it and you'll trust it.
DD: So, going back to the start of the conversation - when you learn all the basic things we talked about - then you can start thinking about more advanced concepts?
LM: I would always start there - you have to become a good hitter, and that means understanding approaches, and using the whole field, and working an at bat. It also includes understanding the strike zone, and strike zone recognition. Now we can talk about some of the more advanced concepts.
DD: Strikeout rates have jumped incredibly in the last 5-8 years. Is that mostly because of approaches, or because of a lack of fundamentals, and knowledge of the strike zone?
LM: I think it's a combination of things. Obviously, I think launch angle has a lot to do with it - you're very vulnerable to the upper part of the strike zone - and power arms, particularly power arms coming out of the bullpen.
DD: Through the years, you've talked a lot about the need to remind young hitters - this is a game of failure. And obviously, they have to deal with failure on their way to the major leagues - but is it different at the major league level?
LM: It is, because there's more pressure, pressure to win, pressure to play well in front of fans at home - just overall more pressure to get it done. But in order to be a really good player at this level, you have to be able to deal with failure. There are plenty of examples of guys who have been in the league for years, who've had success, who struggle. And we've talked with guys about that - especially lately, as we've tried to rebuild guys after facing Chris Sale, who can be tough on your confidence [Sale had just dominated Tigers in a 9-1 Boston win]. There's been a lot of hugging and a lot of consoling (laughing), but they're starting to get it back...
DD: It's a constant process, isn't it? And just watching you with your guys doing your daily work, it seems like the batting cage is a refuge for them, a place where they can go to hear something positive, or learn something, every day.
LM: We call it the barbershop. Guys can come in, get a haircut, a trim, whatever they need to get their confidence up again. It's nice to know there's somewhere you can go and really feel at home, and that's what we try to do - try to get their confidence going on a daily basis.
DD: For fans - what do you think are some of the common misconceptions about hitting? Or what is it you would like fans to know the most about hitting?
LM: I don't know if it's misconceptions, or whether it's just really a hard thing for people to grasp. That this is a game of failure, and you really have to grind, day in and day out. The great players grasp it and understand it. Al [Kaline] said it best. He said, "I had 3,000 hits, but I made 7,000 outs." That certainly puts it in perspective. Guys heading to the Hall of Fame make outs 7 of 10 times. Sometimes that's very difficult for young players to understand.