ANAHEIM, Calif. — Strikeouts are up, again, for the 14th consecutive year, but there are potential signs of a subtle shift beginning to take place, evident at the sport’s highest levels.
Monday’s Freeway Series opener between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Angels wasn’t merely a matchup of the game’s two best performers this season. It was a reminder of how the best ones — at the right age, with the right technology — can continually improve, even when the momentum is so profound in the other direction.
Cody Bellinger and Mike Trout were tied for the major league lead with 4.5 FanGraphs wins above replacement when the week began, but it was their improved strikeout-to-walk ratios that stood out most.
Trout averaged 40 more strikeouts than walks in seven full seasons heading into 2019, but has walked 13 more times than he has struck out this year. Bellinger struck out a combined 144 more times than he walked from 2017 to 2018, but has compiled one more walk than he has strikeouts through the Dodgers’ first 67 games of 2019.
The Angels and Dodgers are among the best at this collectively, ranking first and fourth respectively in strikeout percentage. They stand as the two most selective teams in baseball, elite at a simple concept that is exceedingly difficult against this era’s pitchers — ignoring balls and damaging strikes. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts believes the rest of the sport might be starting to catch up, that the pendulum might finally be moving in the other direction.
“It’s going to swing back,” he said. “I’ve seen more guys trying to beat the shift with the swing, with the bunt, trying to put the ball in play. Guys are starting to make more of a two-strike adjustment. I think around baseball, managers, hitting coaches are talking more about it. I don’t ever see it getting back to where it was before because guys still want to slug. But for me, that’s what’s going to make the really good players and the elite players remain elite.”
Below is a look at how two of the best have made such a difficult enhancement.
The most important numbers: Bellinger has clearly stepped into a different stratosphere this season, and one of the biggest reasons for that stems from his sudden ability to pulverize pitches traveling low and inside. Bellinger is a .438/.600/1.000 hitter on balls thrown in that location, a significant increase from the .220/.418/.380 slash line he posted on those pitches last year. His strikeout rate in that zone was 32.8 percent in 2018. This year, it’s down to 20.
How he did it: Scouts have noted that Bellinger is standing closer to the plate, particularly with his back foot, which is giving him better coverage and has played a big part in helping him cut his strikeout rate from 23.9 to 14.1. Brant Brown, the Dodgers’ assistant hitting coach, said there was never a conscious effort by Bellinger to move closer to the plate. “I think it was more comfort and where his direction goes with his stride,” Brown said.
The question is: How is Bellinger able to do such damage on low-and-in pitches while standing so close to the plate? Bellinger smiled and shrugged. “I don’t know, man.”
Sustainability: Brown will point to Bellinger’s improved two-strike approach as evidence that he can continue to keep the strikeouts down and the walks up. “I think that’s the maturation process of the mental process of knowing what their put-away pitches are, where do we think they’re going to throw you with two strikes, things of that nature. But also shortening up his swing, aiming to move the ball forward,” Brown said. “And I think he’s found out, too, even when he’s in his two-strike approach and he’s trying to either be shorter, or do less, when he still gets the ball on the barrel, there’s plenty of power there.”
The most important numbers: With Trout, it’s very simple: He’s chasing less than ever (swinging at a career-low 16.7 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone) and swinging more efficiently than ever (making contact with a career-high 93.3 percent of pitches within the strike zone). He is famously simple-minded, and when analyzing opposing pitchers, the most important piece of information for Trout is merely which pitches they go to, and in which zones, when they’re in trouble.
How he did it: Unlike Bellinger, who moved closer to the plate and reverted back to a swing that more closely resembled that of 2017, Trout hasn’t made any noticeable mechanical changes. He credits his improved strikeout-to-walk ratio — a clearly stated goal heading into 2019 — to “experience over time, seeing guys more than once.” Jeremy Reed, the Angels’ new hitting coach, also alluded to a major point of emphasis from the new coaching staff.
“We stress passing the baton, I would say, and getting guys to understand that we can scare them out of the hitting zone and we can make them throw strikes,” Reed said. “When guys scuffle in those areas, we remind them. And if there’s areas that we need to work on behind the scenes, we do that too to try to get them back in the zone. We try to preach that being in the zone gives us a chance to do damage. Swinging out of the zone can only hurt us.”
Sustainability: Angels manager Brad Ausmus offers a reminder that Trout is still only 27, which is an age when hitters can make dramatic improvements. “He’s developing,” Ausmus said. “You forget how young he is, really. He’s been such a good offensive player for all of his years in the big leagues, and I think you forget that he’s still learning as a hitter. He’s learning what he can and can’t hit well. I also think pitchers are a lot more cautious with him than they probably might be in the past.”
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