Man­ager Black is old-school with 2 strikes

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Nick Groke

scotts­dale, ariz.» Bud Black threat­ened to climb on his soapbox. The Rock­ies man­ager, lobbed a soft­ball ques­tion about hit­ting when a bat­ter’s back is against the count, bit his tongue, then let loose.

“Over the years, a strike­out is now con­sid­ered by some peo­ple to be OK,” Black said Wed­nes­day be­hind his desk at Salt River Fields. “Be­cause an out is an out. Why sac­ri­fice power or a good swing at the ex­pense of just putting the ball in play?” Then he re­ally got go­ing. “I’ve heard that ar­gu­ment. I fall on the other side of that ar­gu­ment,” Black said. “I fall on the two-strike ap­proach — fight to make con­tact and put the ball in play.”

Ba­sic base­ball rules call for three strikes in an out. But it might as well be two. A two-strike count is a nearly nowin sit­u­a­tion for ma­jor-league bat­ters, who hit a slim .176 on two-strike counts last sea­son, Two strikes is the new three.

But the Rock­ies were among the best teams in base­ball hit­ting in a two-strike count. Colorado fared sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter al­most ev­ery other team, hit­ting .191. That ranked third over­all, be­hind only Bos­ton and Mi­ami.

And they hit for power too. The Rock­ies’ .582 OPS (on-base plus slug­ging per­cent­age) ranked sec­ond be­hind only the Bos­ton Red Sox (.582).

DJ LeMahieu, Colorado’s sec­ond base­man, won a National League bat­ting ti­tle last sea­son in large part by hit­ting in all counts. He hit .276 in twostrike counts. Only Mi­ami’s Martin

Prado (.281) and Wash­ing­ton’s Daniel Mur­phy (.280) hit bet­ter in lost-cause counts. LeMahieu’s on-base per­cent­age with two strikes, at .366, trailed only the L.A. An­gels’ Mike Trout, at .375.

“I’m try­ing to be a good hit­ter as op­posed to not try­ing to strike out,” LeMahieu said. “That has to do with slow­ing the game down. If I’m up there wor­ry­ing about strik­ing out, I’m prob­a­bly go­ing to strike out.”

LeMahieu won a bat­ting ti­tle be­cause he’s made steady im­prove­ment, cre­at­ing big jumps the past three sea­sons in his OPS (.663 in 2015 to .746 to .911) and in av­er­age (.267 to .301 to .348). His ba­sic ap­proach to hit­ting grew from a hope-for-the-best phi­los­o­phy to more fo­cus, he said. Still, though, he al­lows for a men­tal ad­just­ment when he is one strike from an out.

“I used to be more of a ‘swing at it if it’s in the zone’ kind of hit­ter,” LeMahieu said. “I was more wor­ried about mak­ing good con­tact than I was about driv­ing the ball. They weren’t re­ally good at­bats. I was just swing­ing if it was in the zone. Now I’m look­ing for my pitch early in the count. And if I get to two strikes, then I go to that other ap­proach, where I swing if it’s in the zone.”

Red Sox sec­ond base­man Dustin Pe­droia for years was the best two-strike hit­ter in base­ball and re­mains near the top of the list be­cause he is able to make a high amount of con­tact. He had just two fewer hits than LeMahieu last sea­son.

What nags at Black, though, is the idea that a swing is a swing and an out is an out and there is no rea­son to change your iden­tity based on a strike count. Why mess up your swing just be­cause the pitcher is ahead? But that works for some hit­ters. Bos­ton’s David Or­tiz was a slug­ger in his blood. He hit .258 with 14 home runs last sea­son in two-strike counts, stats not far out of line with his over­all num­bers. Other play­ers shorten their swings, put less weight on the back leg or choke up, sac­ri­fic­ing power to put the ball in play.

And some play­ers take ad­van­tage of be­ing down in the count. Colorado cen­ter fielder Char­lie Black­mon had a .427 slug­ging per­cent­age, the sixth best in base­ball, with 14 home runs on two strikes a year ago. He ranked one spot bet­ter than team­mate Nolan Arenado, who slugged .421. Three Rock­ies ranked in the top 25.

What­ever the ap­proach, Black hopes the Rock­ies can ex­trap­o­late an above-av­er­age abil­ity to hit when the odds are against them into win­ning a di­vi­sion when the odds say they can­not get past the Dodgers or Gi­ants.

“You have to be­lieve ‘I’m fight­ing, this guy is not go­ing to get me,’ ” Black said.

Jae C. Hong, The As­so­ci­ated Press

The Rock­ies’ DJ LeMahieu won a bat­ting ti­tle in large part be­cause of his abil­ity to hit with two strikes.

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