Hitting coach breaks down Blue Jays' approach
TORONTO -- The Blue Jays admit they've had trouble against some of the league's better pitchers.
It's something that happens to most teams -- that's what makes those pitchers good -- but it's also something that the club knows it needs to get better at.
"What happens is, at times, we don't get one or two guys to slow the game down and make that pitcher work," hitting coach Chad Mottola said prior to Wednesday's rubber match vs. Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson.
"We seem to let them get in their groove pretty fast. And then they get comfortable out there, and when the best pitchers are comfortable, you're in trouble."
It's been an ongoing trend for the Blue Jays. In the games in which they don't score in the first inning against the likes of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Hisashi Iwakuma, Felix Hernandez, Hiroki Kuroda and CC Sabathia, they are 1-8, scoring seven runs against those pitchers.
In the two games in which they've scored in the opening frame, they're 1-1 with eight runs scored against the starters, and Toronto has 12 runs in those games.
Mottola said to slow down the game against these starters could be something as simple as a good two-strike approach or to attack their fastball early.
"There's all different ways, but obviously we have to make an adjustment where we're not making him adjust at all," said Mottola.
"What I try to say is, 'Let's shrink the strike zone into your strengths,' rather than saying, 'It's a strike, let's hit it.' Because that guy can throw strikes in quadrants of the zone that he knows you can't hit. So just because it's a strike, that doesn't mean we have to swing. That's what we have to get better at doing, is getting our pitch to hit."
That's obviously easier said than done. There's a very fine line between staying aggressive, like the team as a whole is doing, and waiting for your pitch.
J.P. Arencibia's eighth-inning at-bat on Tuesday night is a prime example of that. The Toronto catcher hit a pitcher's pitch on a knee-high fastball, the only one he saw from Rays closer Fernando Rodney, and promptly hit into a double play to end the bases-loaded threat.
Although Arencibia swung at a fastball, something that the Blue Jays would like to do considering how devastating Rodney's changeup is, the location was not ideal.
"It's one of those things where we want to be aggressive to a pitch we want to get," said Mottola, whose club sat 13th in the American League with a .308 on-base percentage prior to Wednesday's game.
The key for the Toronto hitting coach to balance being aggressive while taking pitches comes from being ready at the plate early and recognizing the pitch.
"If we're down early enough to recognize [the pitch], then the at-bats will get better," Mottola said. "That's when you say 'slowing the game down' and things like that. When everything is too fast, you're guessing. I think that's a lot of times where we've given them permission to swing at a fastball. And they guess fastball, instead of recognize fastball. We have to do a better job of recognizing and being ready earlier."
The one example that Mottola refers to is Jose Bautista, who took "years and years" to figure it out.
"That's exactly what Jose got better at from earlier in his career. Five years ago, he finally learned that early was on time," Mottola said.
"It's a constant battle, and some guys never learn it."