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J.D. Martinez: “I’m not trying to hit a [freaking] line drive or a freaking ground ball.”

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Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs has an interesting article up today in which he spoke with Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez. Martinez, of course, has become one of baseball’s most feared hitters, especially after putting up an .879 OPS with 38 home runs in 2015. He used to be a weak, below-average hitter with only occasional power, but as Sawchik illustrates, Martinez made some mechanical changes that put a focus not on hitting line drives and ground balls, but on hitting the ball in the air.

People talk to me and I tell them straight up. I don’t bull[crap]. In the cage, I talk about it all the time. I’m not trying to hit a [freaking] line drive or a freaking ground ball. I’m trying to hit the ball in the air. I feel like the ball in the air is my strength and has a chance to go anywhere in the park. So why am I trying to hit a ground ball? That’s what I believe in.

The change happened when he was studying tape of then-teammate Jason Castro in 2013, who made the AL All-Star team. He later saw footage of Ryan Braun‘s swing and noticed the similarities it had with Castro’s swing. That made him dig into footage of other successful hitters like Mike Trout and Albert Pujols and he realized they were all trying to hit the ball in the air.

After the 2013 season, Martinez worked with a private hitting instructor who had also worked with Castro. As Martinez tells it, “We changed the whole foundation.” In his first season with the Tigers in 2014, Martinez broke out with a .912 OPS and 23 home runs in 480 PA. He repeated the performance and then some in ’15 and, of course, continued to swing a hot bat when he was healthy last year.

Martinez spoke about other hitters slowly catching onto the philosophy of hitting fly balls, not line drives or ground balls.

Hitting takes a while to catch up because of your old-school coaching, old-school mentality. Trying to hit down on the ball. Stuff like that. Once all that starts to go, I feel like the philosophies on hitting will trend forward. But everyone is so caught up on ‘I have to hire someone who has played in the big leagues because he knows what he’s talking about.’ But, to me, that’s not what it is about. It’s more about knowing your shit. You can tell when you talk to someone and they sit down there and they break it down and they show you every little move that the great hitters make and then the moves you make.

As Sawchik notes, there are still hitters who haven’t bought in yet. Twins outfielder Max Kepler, who hit .235 with 17 homers last year, said the philosophy is “completely bogus.” He added, “Whenever I’m in doubt, I try to hit long ground balls to level my swing back out. I’m the opposite of what I hear people saying nowadays.”

Sawchik’s entire column is worth a read, so go check it out at FanGraphs.

The Cubs are in desperate need of relief

Associated Press
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Tonight in Chicago Yu Darvish of the Dodgers will face off against Kyle Hendricks of the Cubs. If this were Game 1, we’d have a lot to say about the Dodgers’ trade deadline pickup and the Cubs’ budding ace. If this series continues on the way it’s been going, however, each of them will be footnotes because it has been all about the bullpens.

The Cubs, you may have heard, are having tremendous problems with relief pitching. Both their own and with the opposition’s. Cubs relievers have a 7.03 ERA this postseason, and have allowed six runs on eight hits and have walked six batters in seven innings of work. And no, the relief struggles aren’t just a matter of Joe Maddon pushing the wrong buttons (even though, yeah, he has pushed the wrong buttons).

Maddon pushed Wade Davis for 44 pitches in Game 5 of the NLDS, limiting his availability in Games 1 and 2. That pushing is a result of a lack of relief depth on the Cubs. Brian Duensing, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. all have talent and all have had their moments, but none of them are the sort of relievers we have come to see in the past few postseasons. The guys who, when your starter tosses 80 pitches in four innings like Jon Lester did the other night, can be relied upon to shut down the opposition for three and a half more until your lights-out closer can get the four-out save.

In contrast, the Dodgers bullpen has been dominant, tossing eight scoreless innings. Indeed, Dodgers relievers have tossed eight almost perfect innings, allowing zero hits and zero walks while striking out nine Cubs batters. The only imperfection came when Kenley Jansen hit Anthony Rizzo in Game 2. That’s it. Compare this to the past couple of postseasons where the only truly reliable arm down there was Jansen, and in which Dodgers managers have had to rely on Clayton Kershaw to come on in relief. That has not been a temptation at all as the revamped L.A. pen, featuring newcomers Brandon Morrow and Tony Watson. Suffice it to say, Joe Blanton is not missed.

Which brings us back to Kyle Hendricks. He has pitched twice this postseason, pitching seven shutout innings in Game 1 of the NLDS but getting touched for four runs on nine hits while allowing a couple of dingers in Game 5. If the good Hendricks shows up, Maddon will be able to ride him until late in the game in which a now-rested Davis and maybe either Strop or Edwards can close things out in conventional fashion, returning this series to competitiveness. If the bad Hendricks does, he’ll have to do what he did in that NLDS Game 5, using multiple relievers and, perhaps, a repurposed starter in relief while grinding Davis into dust again. That was lucky to work there and doing it without Davis didn’t work in Game 2 on Sunday night.

So it all falls to Hendricks. The Dodgers have shown how soft the underbelly of the Cubs pen truly is. If they get to Hendricks early and get into that pen, you have to like L.A’s chances, not just in this game, but for the rest of the series, as bullpen wear-and-tear builds up quickly. It’s pretty simple: Hendricks has to give the Cubs some innings tonight. There is no other option available.

Just ask Joe Maddon. He’s tried.