Figuring hitters out, a baseball lifer told me recently, is like trying to untangle a giant knot.
At first you just try to attack it in the easiest manner possible. If that does not work, you pick another course. And then another and another. You keep trying different things until something gives and you attack that spot until the knot becomes and unraveled mess of string with a sub-.200 batting average and a ticket back to Triple-A.
That, in short, is how teams approach players who are new to the league. Pitchers go right after hitters until the method proves fruitless. Then they start pitching away. Or they pitch up. They change speeds. Or they feed them breaking balls until they go cross-eyed. Meanwhile, the good hitters – the Joe Mauers’ of the world – adjust with the pitcher. They take that pitch on the outer-half to the opposite field. They lay off the high ones. They wait on the breaking ball. Those less experienced may fall right into the game plan of the other team.
Take Danny Valencia and Brian Dozier, for instance. Both of those players enjoyed immediate success but fell apart as teams began to exploit their tendencies to pull everything. Valencia has hit .234/.274/.365 since that exciting rookie season while Dozier is a career .226/.265/.319 hitting in almost 500 plate appearances. Chris Parmelee enjoyed his month of September back in 2011 but has been a pile of yarn in the batters’ box ever since, hitting just .218/.284/.351.
This brings me to the latest hot-hitting young Twin, Oswaldo Arcia.
Arcia began the month of May with an 8-game hitting streak. Within that stretch, he hit .438 with four doubles, a triple and a home run. That performance, spread out across three series, undoubtedly had advanced scouts saying “uh-oh, we’ve got to deal with this.”
In a USA Today article, Bob Johnson, an advanced scout for the Braves who the Twins just finished burning them hardcore on Twitter getting swept out of the south, explained a bit about his technique:
"I'm looking for tendencies," he explains. "If a guy sets his hands at a different position on different counts. I want to know his stance. Does he close up? Is he an open-style hitter? Does he dive into the pitch? … I first check his hands, then his feet. Then I check where his head goes on certain pitches."
Back at the hotel, he writes up reports on the game and then emails them to the team's video coordinator, who compiles the various streams of research. The team's manager and staff will ultimately share the information with the players to help them prepare for future match-ups.
What advanced scouts saw with Arcia, is a hitter who has a great ability to keep his hands inside his swing and plenty of his power is generated that way. He is a hitter who has no trouble going to all fields, in fact he has hit the ball the opposite way (37% of balls in play) more than he has pulled it (31%). Teams realize that they need to get him to move his hands away from his body which requires avoiding pitching him middle-in.
The assumption may be that he is seeing fewer fastballs but the reality is he is seeing roughly the same number of fastballs, just fewer of those for strikes. Take a look at this animation of his swing on fastballs from the beginning of his season to when his hitting streak ended compared to his past 10 games.
Notice the cluster of fastballs near the heart of the plate in the first series and the lack of anything there in the second series.
The amount of in-zone pitches Arcia has seen has shrank significantly (his in-zone pitch percentage is 46%, well below the near 50% mark and has been at 39% the past two weeks). Arcia, so far, has not been the type of hitter in his professional career who takes walks. He is a power hitter who is ready to swing (his 54% swing rate is also well above the MLB average of 46%).
During the Atlanta series, Ron Gardenhire held Arcia out of the lineup, saying that the rookie was “misfiring” at the plate. True, the above numbers indicate that he is pressing hard at the plate with little to show in the past few weeks. Plus, his ninth inning pinch hitting appearance which resulted in a foul out to end the game was a prime example of why he was mired in this offensive quagmire. On a 1-0 pitch, Arcia was sitting dead-red on a fastball. While the Braves gave him one, it was on the outer-half, running away and the contact resulted in an easy third out for Justin Upton in foul territory.
In that situation, under those conditions, you can expect that the manager wants his player to be teeing up on a better pitcher - particularly when ahead in the count.
Prior to Thursday’s game against the Tigers, Gardenhire informed the media that his starting lineup would not include Arcia for a fourth consecutive game. When pressed for an explanation, the manager said that he wanted to play the matchups and that Ryan Doumit was 4-for-10 off the Tigers’ starting pitcher, Rick Porcello. This reasoning, based on absurdly small sample size, is likely the cover for the manager and coaches wanting Arcia to slow down and recognize how pitchers are approaching him. He had fallen into a pattern of trying to force everything. Don’t swing so much, don’t expand the zone and let the game come to him.
Based on his tools, Arcia has a bright future. In order to realize this potential, Arcia will need to refrain from chasing after everything that moves. His mechanics are solid and his strength will ensure that he will blister pitches that come into his swing path. As major league pitchers continue to pick at his weakness, he needs to adjust with them.