Ted Williams was never a fan of the pitchers he brutalized. He thought they were idiots. He called them dumb, lazy non-athletes who, as he once told Esquire Magazine in an interview, "don't play but once every four days. Scratchin' their ass or pickin' their nose or somethin' most of the time. A ballplayer's in the game all the time. They're pitchin', most of 'em, because they can't do anything else".
This seems to fly in the face of the image of the wily hurler who baffles the hapless hitter with guile, velocity, and physics-defying pitches. Perhaps we have this view because pitching has come to dominate the game so much. Until very recently we were in a very offensively depressed world, and even now the strikeouts hitting a new peak every year help to promote this “pitcher as king” image. But after watching Cleveland Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin bat on Opening Day against one of the best starters in the game in Yu Darvish, and help win the game against the Rangers closer Sam Dyson, I'm more inclined to believe Ted.
It's hard not to love Tyler Naquin. He is everything a center fielder is supposed to be, and has spent the last 12ish months blasting away expectations. His offensive output was vital to the Tribe's drive to the pennant. But amid Naquin's amazing breakout, a hole was discovered in his swing. All batters have a weakness or other, Naquin's was just very stark. He could not hit fastballs at the top of the strike zone.
It wasn't just that he couldn't hit it, he also loved to swing at high pitches. His 2016 swing rate was 51.2 percent, his in-zone swing rate was 68.1 percent. Here is how much he swung based on pitch location:
It's not a massive leap in swing rate at the top of zone, but it's above his average. Naquin crushes it down in the zone, and he also happens to crush off-speed pitching. That single he had in the ninth on Monday night was off a two-seam fastball, but he's a major leaguer, he should be able to at least hit 94 miles per hour.
No, the real problem I have with the Rangers, and possibly pitchers in general, is shown by how Texas attacked him. Naquin saw this Monday night:
Yes, that's right, those are all pitches in the lower two thirds of the zone, where Naquin has great success. Then in Naquin's biggest moment, Dyson attacked him like this:
It's not totally fair to point to Dyson's location here as proof of the idiocy of pitchers. After all, he's a sinker ball/two seam thrower, so he's used to throwing down in the zone, tossing bowling balls and getting grounders out of them. That's just what he did to Michael Brantley, Francisco Lindor, and Yandy Diaz on Monday night. But Dyson wasn't the only one to try work down in the zone to Naquin. Each pitcher the Tribe center fielder saw attacked him down there. From an outside point of view, it doesn't make any sense.
It could be that I'm ascribing too much ability to locate pitches to major league pitchers. If you watch the game, any game, it's not often the pitcher hits location exactly right all the time. I even read about a college coach who had pitchers with plus-plus stuff and asked them to just throw as hard as they can through a hula hoop around the strike zone. Chances are, they'll get strikes, and anyway the batter only has so much time to make a decision. The zone is a small place relatively speaking, and trying to locate so exactly isn't that easy. Not everyone is Greg Maddux.
That said, there is an obvious flaw to Naquin's offensive game, at least the book on him says so. As hard as locating pitches might be, these are still the best in the business, you’d think they have some control over where the ball goes. Andrew Miller doesn’t spot fastballs on the corner by accident. Even half an effort to exploit Naquin’s weakness would settle my ire. One could explain it away by Darvish and later Dyson simply going with their strength rather than Naquin's weakness. But Darvish has the strength of being able to throw four or five pitches for strikes, and at 97 miles per hour. And considering the catcher generally does set up with an expected location in mind, you'd think there was some skill in locating.
Considering what we've all learned from decades of data and simply watching, location is paramount and plainly controllable. it can't all be luck, these guys throw pitches places on purpose. The Rangers just decided to go after Naquin in exactly the wrong way. It doesn't make any good sense. Maybe Ted is right though. Maybe pitchers are just boneheads. He's the one who was the best hitter ever. He probably knew a thing or two.