Five players who upgraded their games and broke out in 2017
Baseball is a game of constant adjustment. A change in swing plane, a shift of the hips, a bump in velocity can all transform the average to the supreme. Even the best of players have to continually adjust their game as the opposition changes theirs.
We've seen this play out across the league: A few years ago, pitchers had the upper hand as they exploited the bottom of the strike zone. Hitters have responded by adding upper cuts to their swings, and the result is that they're driving balls out of the park like never before. Soon, pitchers will adjust again.
But what about the players who've made the best changes heading into this year? Here are the five that have upgraded their game and put together big 2017 seasons.
A former first-round Draft pick by the Reds in 2008, the 6-foot-1, 230-pound first baseman was seemingly built for dingers. Yet, heading into 2017, he had never topped nine home runs in a season.
Of course, Alonso's swing wasn't geared for home runs: He was simply looking to hit line drives.
That changed this year. Adding in a leg kick, Alonso has upped his average launch angle from 10.3 degrees -- basically league average -- to 23.8.
The difference has been stark: Alonso already has hit a career high 12 home runs, finally playing like the type of hitter he looks like he could be.
At this point, you have surely heard Thames' name dozens of times -- usually at a heightened pitch as someone shouted "Eric Thames homered again?!?!" He displayed talent and raw power when he hit 21 home runs in parts of two seasons in 2011-12, but there were major issues. Namely, Thames' penchant for expanding the strike zone and whiffing on breaking balls.
Instead of becoming the quintessential Quad-A slugger, though, Thames went to Korea. While there, he learned restraint while facing an endless, Wonka-esque assortment of breaking balls.
Back in the Majors in 2017, Thames has cut his swings out of the zone in half to just 18.1 percent -- the best mark in the Major Leagues. And when pitchers have to throw strikes, Thames makes them pay:
Just look at a chart of where pitches were when he homered on them. This is not Vladimir Guerrero hitting obvious balls for homers:
Morton's career is one of endless experimentation and adjustment. After posting a 7.57 ERA in 2010, Morton changed his delivery to mimic Roy Halladay's and focused almost entirely on his two-seamer.
Now 33 years old, Morton has changed again. Still armed with the two-seamer, Morton found success with his curveball and added three miles per hour to his fastball.
"What's that?" you say. "I thought pitchers lost velocity as they got older. They certainly don't add three ticks to their heater after 30."
Yeah, this is pretty rare. Morton is currently averaging 95.4 mph on his fastball -- up from 92 mph in 2014. His velocity spike first appeared with the Phillies last season after he returned from the disabled list, but Morton himself doesn't know where the new fastball came from or how long it will stick around.
As always, it's easier to get batters out when you're throwing heat. And now, Morton strikes out over 10 batters per nine innings and is part of a dominant three-headed beast at the front of the Houston rotation:
When you have a mid-90s fastball, you don't need to have pinpoint command. You can just throw the ball as hard as you can near the plate and you'll do OK. After walking 20 batters in 21 1/3 innings last season -- and not even making the White Sox out of camp until an injury created an opportunity -- Kahnle has combined his 98-mph fastball with a magnetic, almost unbreakable ability to throw pitches directly to the catcher's glove in 2017.
Through his first 14 appearances, Kahnle struck out 25 batters and walked only three. It's hard to give up runs when batters can't get on base or make contact. It may all be thanks to a subtle shift in how his front foot lands during his motion. Human beings are complicated, man.
Just look at how he got Nick Castellanos to strike out -- with all but one pitch in the at-bat hitting the edges:
The Rockies' pitchers
For years, people wondered how the Rockies' pitchers could succeed. We may now have our answer.
Unlike the other players on this list, who appear to have made a mechanical upgrade during the offseason, the Rockies' newfound success required a complete overhaul in how the front office and coaches thought. Gone are changeups and curves. In are fastballs, sinkers and sliders.
So far, it's working: The Rockies jumped out to a surprising 24-15 start and find themselves in first place in the NL West. They've even managed to do it with staff ace Jon Gray on the DL, as rookies Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela and German Marquez have each stepped up in the rotation.
Plenty of credit should also go to Greg Holland -- signed by the team after missing all of 2016 recovering from Tommy John surgery -- Adam Ottavino and Jake McGee, who are part of what is arguably the strongest bullpen in franchise history.
Ranked 11th in ERA -- which is quite good if you think about their home park -- the Rockies lead the Majors in groundball percentage, with over 50 percent of balls in play rolling across the grass. And sure enough, the team is throwing the highest percentage of fastballs and third-lowest percentage of curves.
While it may be difficult for the staff to continue pitching this well given the team's inexperience and lack of strikeouts, they've figured out the ingredients needed to pitch effectively in Coors Field. That's one mystery of the world solved.
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