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How Indians hitters can capitalize on pitching trends

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I’m not a professional hitting coach. I just play one in my mind.

Divisional Round - New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game One Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

In the grand American tradition of doing things you are unqualified to do, I have a piece of advice for Indians’ hitters. I’m not a hitting coach, as you likely know, but here is my profound, thought-out advice: Don’t swing.

Hitting off an MLB pitcher is certainly one of the (if not the singular) most difficult feats in all of sports. I mean, dudes are out there in spring training getting nutmegged on the third strike.

In that context, not swinging seems the safest bet. However, I also base my advice on two things that came across my Twitter feed this week.

The first piece that helped me create this brilliant piece of coaching was insightful work by Gage Will at Everybody Hates Cleveland. In his article, Will detailed how the Indians have emphasized those Moneyball-era A’s skills, on-base percentage and walk rate, in their acquisitions this season. His bold prediction:

“[T]his Indians team will walk more than 700 times, doing something that has not been done since the peak of the steroid era. You can book 200 from the Carlos Santana and Jose Ramirez duo. Add in another 150 or so from the Jake Bauers and Francisco Lindor pair and you’re halfway there.”

Of course, this prediction is not just a casually thrown out number. Sure, his number is ~150 walks higher than the Indians drew last year and 50 higher than the league-leading Dodgers, but it’s not crazy. Will breaks down the careers of the new (and old but new again) Indians and bases this conclusion on track records — not unlike from the projection systems we love to study this time of year (and the Cubs love to hate).

Another thing that supports Will’s conclusion is, conveniently, the second article that piqued my interest, this from Mike Petriello of MLB.com. In identifying trends to watch in 2019, Petriello is confident that fewer pitches will be in the zone this season and, perhaps as a result, wild pitches and passed balls will continue to be a big part of the game.

In his research, Petriello found that the number of balls out of the strikezone as well as the number of passed balls and wild pitches were at all-time highs in 2018. As the game is played today, he sees no reason to expect that trend to change, either.

“In 2018, for example, batters had a .284 average with a .485 slugging…[and] a full 92 percent of homers came on pitches in the zone.... Outside the zone, the results were slightly different, as you’d expect — just a .155 average and a .213 slugging…. [P]itchers know this. They’d love for hitters to go after a breaking pitch outside the zone…. Back in 2008, just over 50 percent of pitches were in the zone. In ‘18, that was down to 43 percent — a drop of thousands of pitches.”

Of course, with the demands on catchers being extreme when balls were being thrown in the strikezone, that leads to more chaos behind the plate.

“We saw more wild pitches (1,847) than any season on record, going back to 1956…. Throw in 370 passed balls...and you get 2,217 pitches that weren’t properly handled by catchers. That’s 224 more than we saw when the 30-team era began in 1998.”

Thus, it’s not crazy to expect walks to rise this season, especially for a team with proven patience, like the Indians. These are, after all, professional hitters, and they possess an ability to see the ball and make a decision about swinging in milliseconds in a way neither you nor I could possibly do. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need advice, coach is just another word for advisor, after all.

Which brings me back to my (unwarranted, ill-advised, uncalled for) advice: Don’t swing. If the numbers say the ball is not going to be over the plate, just let it go. Let the walks pile up by the dozens and don’t be the guy falling out of his shoes in @PitchingNinja tweets.

Not swinging is certainly not the best advice when it comes to pace of play, and maybe putting forward such a suggestion highlights why no team has asked me to come tutor their players. But expecting the Indians not to swing, or at least not swing as often, could be good wisdom for fans.

Patience has been the theme of this offseason: Wait and see what the front office does; wait and see if these young guys can compete in the big leagues; wait and see if the AL Central is abysmal again. When games finally start to mean something again, we may have to wait and see how a rally develops, one ball at a time.