With that said, team batting coaches and the overall team batting approach can have a marked effect of the success of hitters. Jose Bautista credits Cito Gaston for much of his unprecedented success in Toronto, for example. The Washington Nationals hitting coach is named Rick Eckstein. He has been in this role since late in the 2008 season, and has seen his share of ups and downs over that span. Early in 2012, the Nationals as a team were struggling at the plate, frequently leaving their elite starting pitchers and their efforts out to dry. Nationals manager Davey Johnson defended his hitting coach, in part pointing out numerous injuries to everyday offensive contributors. Johnson and Eckstein realized a major issue in their team batting approach, summarized well by this quote from Johnson on MLB.com in mid-August:
"To a man, we got a little too much concerned about hitting the ball the other way," Johnson said. "I think the regime before liked everybody to go the other way. We really couldn't handle fastballs [inside]. We didn't hit the ball where it was pitched. We have the talent to hit the ball where it was pitched, but we were a little defensive. ... We had the book on us. ... 'Pound them in with hard stuff,' and we weren't able to do much.
"Rick Eckstein has done a great job and got them to stay inside, hit the ball where it was pitched. They don't have to cheat to get to the fastball. Just become better hitters. We are not 100 percent where we need to be. We still have certain hitters who still have lapses going back. I call it a defensive swing, a longer swing, when we face a really good pitcher. Unless we are in that attack mode, we can be pitched to."
We can investigate whether this new approach is paying off for Nationals' hitters. As a quick test, we can determine which team as a whole has improved the most on runs created per fastball faced. A look at this leaderboard shows the Nats have improved the most of all MLB teams, with their team wFB/C up 0.7 in 2012 to date than in 2011. To select one prime example for a more thorough investigation from the team, we can look no further than Ian Desmond. The Nationals' shortstop has followed up two consecutive lackluster years with a breakthrough season in 2012:
|Ian Desmond Batting Statistics, 2010-2012 (to date)|
|Ian Desmond, Heat Map of Performance on Fastballs only, 2011|
|Ian Desmond, Heat Map of Performance on Fastballs only, 2012|
While not pleasing to those who already find baseball a slow game to watch, another observation is that Desmond has joined his middle infield partner as the players who have slowed down their pitch-to-pitch pace the most in 2012:
|Slower Pace Leaders, all Qualified Hitters, 2012 (to date) compared to 2011|
Hitting a baseball is a difficult skill to master. It is perhaps the hardest thing to accomplish in sports. Ian Desmond would tell you this, and no doubt would claim a subtle change in approach can drastically alter your hitting success.
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[Credit and thanks to Fangraphs and Baseball Heat Maps for data upon which this analysis is based]