Three and half hours before their second home game of 2012, half the Braves’ regulars were taking swings at pitches lobbed underhanded from a distance of six feet by bullpen catcher Alan Butts. As you’d guess, these soft serves were being driven prodigious distances. And the purpose of this exercise was … what?
Said Greg Walker, the Braves’ hitting coach: “There’s another group doing this in the [indoor] cage, but we’re doing it out here to see the flight of the ball.”
And this matters … why?
Walker: “If you’re getting topspin or a hook, that means you’re missing.”
Every team does the lob drill, but most of them do it indoors, where the flight of the ball is architecturally limited. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said Walker had seen the Yankees doing it on the field, and he liked the idea. Which is yet another reason to like Greg Walker: He’s smart enough to borrow from the best.
The Braves scored only 10 runs in their first four games, prompting moans of “Here we go again” from the electorate. They’d scored 22 in the next three, including 10 in Friday’s home opener. Saturday’s game was more understated: They managed only two runs and three hits, but they forced Milwaukee starter Shaun Marcum and reliever Jose Veras to throw 127 pitches over eight innings — and the Braves won 2-1.
The Friday flurry wasn’t so much a triumph of bashing as of hitters generating clinical at-bats. Michael Bourn opened the decisive eighth inning with a single off Francisco Rodriguez, who’s known as K-Rod. Next up was Freddie Freeman, who fell behind in the count, fouled off a wicked pitch that could have induced a double play and held off swinging at 2-2 and 3-2 changeups.
Said Chipper Jones, who monitored developments with a practiced eye: “Freddie had a great at-bat against a tough pitcher, and it dominoed from there.”
Walker: “Freddie’s two walks [he had another in the sixth-run fifth] might have been the biggest at-bats of the game.”
Students of history know that the Braves haven’t always been painstaking. In 2010 that changed. They led the National League in walks and on-base percentage, and they made the playoffs with an unassuming lineup. If you’ve ever wondered if OBP is as all-fired important as stat geeks maintain, that season offered an answer: Indeed it is.
That October the Braves changed hitting coaches, redeploying Terry Pendleton at first base and importing Larry Parrish, who’d never been a big-league hitting coach. Soon the hitters were back to flailing. In 2011 the Braves dropped to 14th among 16 NL teams in OBP. Parrish was canned two days after the Epic Collapse was complete.
Walker’s approach: “We want to put together quality at-bats, to fight through at-bats and not to give in.” Every hitting coach, Larry Parrish presumably included, would say the same. But what happened to the Braves under Parrish was that good hitters fell into bad habits and stayed there. The deliberation that had been contagious in 2010 mutated into an epidemic of impatience.
Walker doesn’t want his men to be afraid to swing. “I’d prefer us to be smart, not just ‘Moneyball’ guys. [The book 'Moneyball' depicted Oakland's belief that a walk is tantamount to a hit.] Sooner or later you’re going to have to get a hit to score.”
What Walker wants is for the Braves “to develop a mindset” that doesn’t vary from at-bat to at-bat. He wants hitters who won’t enable pitchers by swinging too early in the count. “We want to be smart, but we also want to be aggressive,” he said, and that’s a fine line to walk. What happened Friday night seemed an early indication that the new coach’s teaching is beginning to take hold.
Said Jones: ““There’s a ton of potential in here. The only reason we’re talking about a lack of offense is because of last year. Three or four guys in the lineup had off-years. If they just have typical years, we’ll score enough runs to back up this pitching staff.”
Walker liked what he saw Friday — “Almost all our at-bats were good ones” — and he likes what he sees and hears around the cage. “Guys are coaching themselves,” he said, and that’s essential: It’s tough to develop a mindset among the mindless.
The key to sustained offense isn’t the three-run homer. (Those don’t come every inning, or even every week.) It’s the commitment to valuing every plate appearance, and yes, it’s easier said than done. And yes, this way works.
“Enough quality at-bats,” Walker said, “and we’re good team.”
And if baseball ever changes its rules and mandates that pitching must be done underhanded from a distance of six feet … well, here’s your new Murderers Row. “We’d wear people out,” Gonzalez said. “We might score 100.”
By Mark Bradley