Flamethrowing middle relievers ... devilish defensive shifts ... an expanding strike zone ... Modern hitters are under siege—but with the right approach they can fight back. Hensley Meulens has three rings to prove it
THE 1990s were going to be the decade of Bam Bam in the Bronx. The Yankees hadn't made the playoffs since '81, a drought that was supposed to end with the arrival of third baseman and outfielder Hensley Filemon Acasio (Bam Bam) Meulens from the tiny Dutch Caribbean country of Cura√ßao, who had crushed at least 26 home runs in three separate minor league seasons. There was just one problem: When he faced major league pitching, Bam Bam was a bust. "I swung out of my butt trying to hit a home run every time," says Meulens, who at 47 still has the broad-shouldered, 6'4" physique that inspired so many New Yorkers to imagine a plaque for him in Monument Park. "I didn't hit many." By 1993, when the Yankees released Meulens, he had eked out just a dozen homers in parts of five seasons, batting .221 and striking out once every 3.4 plate appearances. "The thing I thought I was going to do," he says, "I didn't do it."
Two decades later the disorder that bedeviled Meulens has become an epidemic. Batters find themselves overmatched by pitchers, and the disparity is getting worse. In 2014 the average lineup scored 4.1 runs, the fewest since 1981 and a 20.7% decline since 2000. MLB hitters batted .251, the lowest average since 1972. Often they didn't make contact: Their 37,441 strikeouts marked the seventh consecutive year they broke that ignominious record.
Some of the reasons for the offensive decline are beyond hitters' control. One is the expansion of the strike zone. In 1996, when baseball was facing a very different imbalance—too many runs were being scored—it lowered the zone from the top of the knee to the joint's hollow, encouraging umpires to call the just-above-the-knee strike, which was already in the rule book. However, thanks to the advent of QuesTec and other systems that track and grade ball-and-strike calls, the umpires got too good. A study in The Hardball Times by Jon Roegele showed that the strike zone has expanded by 40 square inches since 2009, from 435 to 475, with most of that growth coming in the lower reaches—pitches that are extremely hard to drive. Last season, for example, Marlins star Giancarlo Stanton had a slugging percentage of .263 on low strikes and .719 on all others. Roegele has estimated that the strike zone alone accounts for 31% of the decline in scoring. Like gamblers in debt to the mob, hitters have come to appreciate the importance of the kneecap.
March 30, 2015
Sandy Alderson, the GM of the Mets and the chairman of MLB's playing rules committee, has suggested that the league might again redefine the strike zone, this time shrinking it in favor of offenses, as soon as 2016. But even then, extrapolating from Roegele's numbers, hitters would remain at a disadvantage. For guidance, they might turn to the recently successful philosophies espoused by an unlikely guru: Bam Bam Meulens.
Meulens became the Giants' hitting coach in 2010, and using many of the five languages he speaks—English, Dutch, Spanish, Japanese and the Caribbean dialect Papiamento—he began delivering a simple message to his new charges: Do exactly as I didn't. He wanted them to focus on making solid contact, even if it meant choking up. One influence on his thinking was notoriously capacious AT&T Park in San Francisco, which has been MLB's hardest stadium to homer in for three of the past five years. "You're hitting 415-foot fly balls, and they're an out in AT&T Park," Meulens says. "Eh. I think I'll take the single.
"The last few years we've basically been concentrating on battling. When you're in battle mode, you're instantly shortening your swing. It's not like we don't like guys who hit home runs. Bochy"—manager Bruce Bochy—"loves it. I like a three-run homer instead of a one-run single. But if we try to do that all game, it doesn't work."
In July 2012, 21 months after Meulens had helped the Giants win one World Series and three before he helped them win a second, the Dutch royal family knighted him behind home plate at AT&T Park. Last October, San Francisco won it all again. Three rings in five seasons suggests that the rest of the league might be wise to start following the strategies of the man the Giants now call Sir Bam Bam.
IN MOST major league stadiums the indoor batting cages used by visiting teams do not come equipped with pitching machines. So Meulens purchased a portable model and had a special case made so he could bring it on the road. Before the Giants take batting practice, he uses the machine to feed them breaking balls, but after BP they return to the indoor cage and face straight gas. Meulens sets the machine as high as it goes—around 90 mph—but that is just the start. With each pitch, his hitters step closer to the machine. They don't take a full swing but try only to make solid contact. "Just stop it with the barrel," he tells them. When they're so close that they can no longer get a barrel on the ball—some, like outfielder Angel Pagan, can do so until they are less than 30 feet away—they retreat toward home plate. "You go back, and everything looks really, really slow, and you have plenty of time to hit it," says Pagan.
During Meulens's playing days he hardly ever faced a pitcher who threw harder than 95 mph, but now it seems as if every team has several. Last season, for example, 56 pitchers worked more than 10 innings while throwing an average fastball in excess of 95, a startling increase from 2007, when there were just 17, according to Baseball Info Solutions (BIS). Nine of those pitchers were starters, including Yordano Ventura, the Royals' rookie who faced the Giants in Game 2 of the World Series.
When Gregor Blanco came to San Francisco in 2012, he thought of himself as a home run hitter, even though he'd belted only three during his first three seasons and had spent 2011 out of the majors entirely. Meulens quickly set him straight. "Gregor, when are you going to learn?" he asked. Says Blanco, "It wasn't easy, and it's still not easy. Sometimes I feel like I got that pop, that I can hit 15 home runs, 20 home runs a year. At the same time, it's not my game." So, at around 6:50 p.m. last Oct. 22 in Kansas City, Blanco found himself 30 feet from Meulens's pitching machine, trying to get his bat on pitches he could barely see. About 20 minutes later he received a 98-mph fastball from Ventura—and deposited it in the rightfield seats for a leadoff home run that he was not trying to hit.
While hard throwers account for many struggles at the plate, they do not particularly faze San Francisco (chart, page 72)—and in the playoffs they batted .278 against pitches delivered 95 or faster, the best among the eight teams who played multiple postseason games.
The conventional wisdom is that batters ought to make pitchers work. Meulens, however, does not believe in extending at bats deep into counts, especially when hitters are facing opponents with ever more devastating "out" pitches (chart, page 74). The Giants, meanwhile, have ranked among MLB's bottom seven in pitches seen per plate appearance in each of Meulens's five seasons.
Meulens tailors his teachings to each of his charges. His best hitter, catcher Buster Posey, rarely steps into the batting cage at all. Last August, though, as Posey's average dropped to .279, nearly 30 points below his career standard, Bam Bam suggested a change. Posey, per convention, liked to see a strike before taking a swing. Meulens pointed out that when Posey swung on the first pitch, his average was nearly .500, while with two strikes, it was barely above .200. "You're taking that first-pitch strike," Meulens said. "What's it getting you?" Over the final 33 games Posey batted .414.
THE 2014 World Series was a dead heat—tied at two games apiece, 0--0 in the bottom of the second inning—when Brandon Belt came to the plate with no outs and Hunter Pence on first. Belt, San Francisco's 26-year-old lefthanded-hitting first baseman, saw that the Royals' infielders had shifted, expecting him to pull the ball against their ace, James Shields. So, with only one defender to the left of second base, Belt did something he had never done before: He bunted for a base hit down the third base line. Two batters later Pence scored, and the Giants went on to win 5--0. "I think that changed the momentum of that game," Belt says. "I don't see why I won't do it again."
If an expanding strike zone and increasing velocity were not enough, clubs have recently invented another way to make hitters' lives miserable: defensive shifts, in which managers, drawing on ever more detailed and accessible data about batters' tendencies, position their fielders precisely where opponents are most likely to hit the ball. The use of the strategy exploded in 2014. While hitters saw 6,632 shifts in 2013, according to Inside Edge, last season they encountered 14,872, an increase of 124.2%; and while two years ago seven clubs shifted fewer than 100 times, last year all 30 teams used the shift at least 195.
On balance, shifts work: Inside Edge says that they prevented 217 runs in 2014. Lefthanded power hitters bear the brunt of it—David Ortiz saw the most shifts last season, followed by Ryan Howard and Brandon Moss—but even righthanded pull hitters are not immune. (BIS recorded shifts against the Astros' Chris Carter on nearly 55% of his plate appearances.)
Hitters do have a few ways to fight back. One is by bunting, as Belt did, a tactic most sluggers are loath to embrace. Last year only five hitters bunted more than three times against the shift; the leader was Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, with five. Another option? Minimize any tendencies that an opposing defense might detect and exploit. It should be no surprise that the all-fields approach is a favorite of the once pull-happy Meulens. Last season, according to Inside Edge, opponents put the shift on just 135 times against the Giants—111 times fewer than against any other club and 826 times fewer than against the Yankees, the MLB leaders. In fact San Francisco faced fewer shifts in 2014 than did 30 individual hitters.
Part of that was a matter of personnel: The Giants didn't have any of the classic lefty power hitters who might have inflated their shifted-against numbers. "I'm sure that Big Papi isn't going to change his swing now that he's 37 years old, or whatever," Meulens says. (Ortiz is 39.) But a lot of it had to do with the way San Francisco hit. In the minors Belt had a lot of success pulling the ball—he batted .350 during his career on the farm, with 34 homers in 196 games—but when he debuted in San Francisco in 2011, he found, as Meulens once had, that major league pitchers presented a different challenge. As a rookie Belt hit .225; the next year he hit .275; during the first half of 2013, he hit .260.
Belt's problem, Meulens believed, was that he was keeping the wrist of his top hand bent, in an attempt to pull the ball as he had done so productively in the minors, rather than relaxing it to cover more of the plate and to hit the ball to all fields. "It's not that I was necessarily resisting it," Belt says. "It's just that I had success other ways. When you're coming up, you hear lots and lots and lots of suggestions, some of which I did take into account, and that did not work. Everybody and their mom thinks they know how to hit, so they want to let you know. It took me a while to really convince myself it was the way to go."
"It took 2½ years," says Meulens. During the second half of 2013, Belt batted .326, with an OPS of .915. Belt missed the majority of last season due to a fractured left thumb, then a concussion, but in the playoffs he batted .295, including .308 in the World Series.
THE CONCEPT of "survivorship bias" holds that we often give victors more credit for their tactics than we should, even if they won by very slim margins. This could easily apply to Sir Bam Bam's philosophy. After all, in none of their three championship years did they rank higher than 12th in runs, and they didn't even make the playoffs in Meulens's other two years as hitting coach. Further, the 2013 champions, the Red Sox, won with a more traditional power-based lineup, one that ranked first in the league in OPS, second in pitches per plate appearances, sixth in home runs and eighth in strikeouts.
There is, in other words, more than one way to build and refine a winning lineup. The title-minded Indians, for example, last year were shifted against more than just seven other clubs, yet their major off-season addition was the shift-inducing Moss. "We're not looking, necessarily, for him to change at all," says Indians GM Chris Antonetti. "Focus on getting a good pitch to hit, and hit it hard. And if you hit it into the seats, it doesn't matter what defense they have."
That's fine by Moss. "I don't see why I'm not first in being shifted against—Ortiz goes oppo better than I do," he says. "I don't care. I'm going to try to hit through it. Look, I can handle striking out, I can handle hitting into the shift. But when I bunt and the pitcher fields and throws me out?" He turns to his new locker neighbor, Jason Kipnis. "I'm going to come and kick Kipnis's ass!"
"Nice bunt, idiot!" Kipnis says, imagining his pre-ass-kicking reaction.
There are no longer many players, though, who can threaten to hit 30 home runs every season, as Moss can. "I probably wouldn't have gotten any hits at all in today's game," says Meulens. "Not with the way I used to swing." In fact, to succeed as the Giants of recent vintage have, most hitters would do well to do one of the many things that Bam Bam couldn't back when he was a player: adapt.
Major league hitters batted .251 last season, the lowest since 1972. Against pitches thrown at 95 mph or more, they were even worse: .239. Giants batters were one of the few groups that didn't melt under the heat.