Pirates' Hurdle: Players too focused on HRs to choke up
ST. LOUIS — Pirates manager Clint Hurdle once got a surprising answer when he asked a player how often he choked up at the plate.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Choke up? No, I'm not an emotional player,' ” Hurdle said.
Hurdle laughed at the memory. His question wasn't about the player's feelings. Hurdle wanted to know whether the player slid his hands up the bat handle an inch or two and shortened his swing when he got behind in the count.
“To choke up and to battle with your bat, for me, that's what this game is all about,” Hurdle said. “There comes a time when you should just do the best you can with what you got, wherever you are. But there doesn't seem to be that battle anymore.”
Like the guy in Hurdle's story, it seems a lot of young players don't know what it means to choke up. Even in the post-steroids era, they're swinging from their heels with their hands at the knob of the bat.
“You don't get paid for hitting base hits,” Hurdle said. “You get paid for hitting homers. That's the mentality.”
Big swings can produce home runs, but they also breed strikeouts.
In 1987, Hurdle's final year as a player, major league batters struck out in 15.5 percent of their at-bats. By 2004, hitters were whiffing 16.5 percent of the time.
This year, the strikeout rate has ballooned to 20.9 percent, a full point higher than last season.
As strikeouts have become more common, the stigma about them has faded. The trip from home plate to the dugout after a whiff used to be a walk of shame, Hurdle said. Now some of the game's numbers-crunchers claim a strikeout theoretically is no worse than any other kind of out.
“When the defense doesn't have to make a play, how can you say it's just another out?” Hurdle said. “In theory? Well, theory doesn't always play in a uniform. Theory doesn't have a heartbeat. Theory doesn't have a pulse. For me, the more balls you put in play, I've got to believe your chances of scoring runs are better. I'm old-fashioned that way.”
You want an old-school example? One of the Pirates' most prolific home-run hitters choked up practically all the time.
“Barry Bonds didn't wait until (there were) two strikes,” Hurdle said. “He did it with no strikes and hit a bunch of home runs.”
Neil Walker always nudges his hands up the bat when he gets two strikes. He already has hit six homers, with three of them coming on two-strike counts.
“You'd be surprised how many times you choke up with two strikes and just kind of use your hands to make contact and hit the ball off the wall for a double or even run one out of the ballpark,” Walker said. “It's really personal preference, but we're all aware of it. We work on our two-strike approach every day in (batting practice). Everyone has some sort of two-strike approach. For me, it's choking up.”
Walker also goes against the grain when it comes to strikeouts. As a rookie in 2009, he fanned in 27.5 percent of his at-bats. Last season, it was down to 15.4 percent.
Walker's strikeout rate this season is down to 11 percent, and his on-base plus slugging percentage has risen to .791.
“I've been more aggressive early in the count,” Walker said. “In the past, I was a little more passive, taking pitches and seeing pitches deeper in the count. Now my focus is getting my swing off and trying to barrel the ball.”
Walker's ability to choke up and battle is one reason Hurdle moved him up to the No. 2 spot in the batting order this week. It's a spot where the ability to make contact and get on base is key.
A few days ago, Russell Martin was in the No. 2 hole against the Milwaukee Brewers. In the third inning, facing a full count against Yovani Gallardo, Martin choked up and lined a single to center field.
“You saw a little bit of a different approach from (Martin),” Hurdle said. “He embraced it. With two strikes, he got wide and choked up. I don't think I've seen him choke up too many times, but he did it there, and it worked.”
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