Home MLB'Weekly' Hit Ground Ball Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Don’t wake up

Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Don’t wake up

by Matt Smith

WhgbHlSqThe Colorado Rockies’ recent run ensured that their game against the Los Angeles Dodgers would make for entertaining viewing on Saturday evening.  Watching on MLB.TV offered the additional benefit of listening to the legendary broadcaster Vin Scully calling the action and, in particular, commenting on the recent form of the Rockies’ shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.

Scully has been calling Dodgers games for 61 years and counting and there’s no one better able to put historic feats or memorable performances into perspective.  There was a sense of wonder in Scully’s voice as he relayed the numbers that Tulowitzki had put up over the preceding fourteen games as he arrived in the batter’s box in the first inning.  Scully had just finished stating the stats when the Dodgers’ starting pitcher John Ely threw a change-up down the middle of the plate to Tulowitzki.

“Look out, he’s hit another one!”, exclaimed Scully.

So he had, and he would do so again in the fifth inning.  The two blasts made it fourteen home runs in fifteen games prior to Sunday, a sequence that began on 3 September against the San Diego Padres.  Tulowitzki had hit twelve home runs in the 2010 season before that point, nine of which came before spending five weeks on the disabled list between mid-June and the end of July. 

‘Tulo’ hit thirty-two long balls in 2009, so a power explosion is nothing new for the shortstop, but this recent run has been almost otherworldly, not least because his DL stint was due to a fractured wrist.  Strong wrists are an essential element for any home run hitter and when they suffer an injury to that area, you often find that it can take months after they return to the lineup before the power really comes back (David Ortiz and Vernon Wells are two recent examples of this). 

That’s not been a problem in this case though.  “Troy Tulowitzki … boy … unbelievable” was how Scully put it and, as always, he called it just right.

Later that evening, there was a similarly astonished tone to a home run call made by a broadcaster on Rogers Sportsnet.  “Fifty is surely in sight now. Number forty-nine for the Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista”.

The astonishment would have been merited for the majesty of the shot alone.  This was no fence-scraper, it soared high over the Green Monster out into the street below and induced a gasp alongside the expected groan from the Fenway faithful.  However, as with Tulowitzki, it was the numbers involved that made the moment all the more breathtaking.

If someone tells you that they had predicted Bautista would hit forty-nine homers in a season, chances are their face will be found under the word ‘liar’ in the dictionary.  Coming into the season, Bautista had hit fifty-nine home runs in his career dating back to his first Big League fly ball off Scott Olsen on 13 May 2006.  His highest season total came with the Pittsburgh Pirates that same year when he hit sixteen in 117 games.  To state that this season has been out of step with the rest of his career would be a major understatement.

Sadly, such a power jump has set tongues wagging and fingers tapping as some have questioned on radio shows and blogs whether Bautista’s 2010 season has been ‘enhanced’ in any illegal way.  Baseball’s past makes these rumours depressingly inevitable; however in this case there are two strong arguments to counteract them.  Firstly, Bautista would have been tested numerous times this season for any so-called performance-enhancing drugs and has clearly come up clean every time.  Secondly, there is a genuine explanation for why he has performed so much better in 2010 than in years past.

Bautista has made some deliberate changes to his swing and his approach at the plate and it would be fair to say that they are working.  Fanhouse.com’s Frankie Pilliere, a former scout for the Texas Rangers, has written a fascinating article explaining these changes in detail.  They all link together, but the bit that really caught my eye was the comments on Bautista’s leg kick and the way that impacts his timing at the plate.  As Pilliere explains:

“This leg kick that he has used can be difficult to master. Land in the wrong place and you close yourself off. Land too far open and you end up pulling off the ball. If the timing is off at all, it’s going to lead to quite a few strikeouts … it’s nearly impossible to be a consistent hitter for average using this approach”.

This view is backed up when you take a look at Bautista’s month-by-month splits this season.  He has  gone through stretches (April/March and June) when his timing hasn’t quite been there.  When it has been, he’s been crushing the ball to left/left-centre on a regular basis.

Bautista’s technical changes suggest that he should be able to continue hitting home runs at a fair rate next season, but few would expect him to touch 50 again.  That’s not to say he’s been lucky, just that his confidence has been high and he’s got on a run that he’s unlikely to repeat. 

When Bautista was arriving back to the dugout after his forty-ninth home run, a commentator on Rogers Sportsnet said that fellow ballplayers will often tell someone in form to “stay unconscious, don’t think out there” and “don’t wake up”.  Players from all sports will recognise the sentiment.  Whether it’s Bautista or Tulowitzki hitting a bunch of home runs, or a pitcher like the Mets’ R. A. Dickey having a career year at the age of 35, players will occasionally get ‘in the zone’ and play freely with confidence and no technical or negative thoughts clouding their mind.

Such moments are often tantalizingly brief and, when they happen, the player and us fans shouldn’t take them for granted.

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