Aggressive Rox hope to cut down on K's
Confidence is key in two-strike counts for powerful lineup
PHOENIX -- Two strikes? No problem. That's the mantra for the Rockies' offense this season.
Last year's National League Wild Card winners finished second to the D-backs in strikeouts. Yet they ranked near the top of the league in many categories that measure run production and damage done by hits. Even with the strikeouts, few teams produced with two strikes as well as the Rockies.
Manager Jim Tracy heads into 2010 planning to reduce strikeouts without robbing the team of its aggressiveness.
It's working so far in Cactus League play. Stats aren't broken down the way they are during the regular season, but improved two-strike performance is a key behind the team's .338 batting average, .517 slugging percentage and .385 on-base percentage through the first eight games.
"We're not 100 percent there," Tracy said. "But those that may not be completely convinced, eventually they'll join the party. Those that are there are the ones who are likely to be doing a lot of the participating as we go forward."
Tracy and hitting coach Don Baylor have hammered home two points:
There must be a "physical change" when the count reaches two strikes. "Spread out, choke up, do whatever you have to do to put the ball in play," Baylor said.
Try to hit to the middle of the field. As Tracy put it, "We don't have to do a lot of things differently except stay out of pull mode."
All this has to be done in a manner that doesn't make players afraid of striking out.
Baylor's 1979 season, when he won the American League Most Valuable Player while with the Angels, is a prime example of the best of all worlds. He hit 36 home runs and struck out just 51 times.
TWO STRIKES, NO PROBLEM
"It can be done, but you have to confident enough to believe that you're not going to swing and miss," Baylor said.
First baseman Todd Helton, who hit .272 with two strikes, is the team's resident master. Troy Tulowitzki, who hit .245 with 10 homers with two strikes last season and is, according to Tracy, "taking championship at-bats" in Spring Training, is developing the understand of his personal hitting zone -- an attribute that the game's best run producers share.
But some Rockies' numbers were all over the place last year. Third baseman Ian Stewart fanned 138 times last year, but also drove in a team-high 23 runs with two strikes. Second baseman Clint Barmes matched Tulowitzki for the team lead with 10 two-strike homers, but fanned 121 tmes.
Right fielder Brad Hawpe, who led the 2009 Rockies with 145 strikeouts but also had 28 extra-base hits with two strikes, said the key is making a slight adjustment -- in his case, a shorter stroke to the opposite-field gap -- without swinging defensively.
"I don't have the fear," Hawpe said. "You don't want to approach it with a swing that's not as dangerous. You're not going to do any damage, not going to change the game if you're going to go ahead ground to second base just because you want to put this ball in play."
But strikeouts can get to even the hardest of swingers.
"You almost feel like every pitch is a strike to you no matter where it is, and it starts messing with your mind," Stewart said. "But I can be a good two-strike hitter. I'm really working on my swing being short to the ball, and that's really going to help me with my two-strike approach."
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Veteran Jason Giambi, who joined the Rockies late last season and has mentored players such as Young and Tulowitzki, said it's important each hitter find his individual adjustment.
"Somebody like myself or Todd Helton, who does a good job of two-strike hitting, you still want to put the ball in play, but I'm not going to hit the ball to shortstop and beat it out," Giambi said. "I've got to make the most of my outs and the most of my swings. One year I had a low total of strikeouts and high homers [38 homers, 83 strikeouts with the Athletics in 2001] and in a perfect world you'd love to do that. But strikeouts are going to happen.
"But if you can run like guys like Dexter Fowler and Eric Young Jr., we want you to put the ball in play."
There are times, however, that big boppers should calm the aggression, like when runners can be moved or scored.
"There are times that guy is throwing the ball and he's a tough customer, that's all you can do is touch it, but I'd much rather see you touch it than drag the bat back to the dugout," Tracy said.
Another issue is the two-strike philosophy of the opposing pitcher, team or catcher -- any could prevail, depending on the situation. Will the hitter see the pitcher's best pitch, or the one that the pitcher feels the hitter struggles to handle?
So the situation, the hitting stroke and the opposition all come into play after the umpire yells, "Strike two." But Helton offers the best advice.
"Don't panic," he said.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.