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 Leyland's new slogan: Protect the plate

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PostSubject: Leyland's new slogan: Protect the plate   Tue Mar 02, 2010 9:46 am

Leyland's new slogan: Protect the plate
Manager looking for club to improve in two-strike situations

By Jason Beck / MLB.com

03/01/10 8:49 PM EST

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jim Leyland's new slogan for his Tigers this year didn't make it to the media guide, and it probably won't end up on a T-shirt. But he wants his hitters to take it to heart.

The slogan: Protect the plate.

It doesn't have a ring to it, though it kind of sounds like a sports apparel commercial. But it has a purpose.

"A lot of times," Leyland said, "it's not so much what you say as much as how you say it, when it's comprehended a little bit better."

Maybe it's also about how you put it to practice. Leyland has some ideas on that.

"I'm going to pick some games during the course of Spring Training where I'm going to ask our hitters to take two at-bats with a two-strike approach," Leyland said. "Go up there like they've got two strikes on them from the first pitch on."

The immediate goal is to get Tigers hitters to change their approach with two strikes and either find more hits or make more productive outs. The big-picture goal is for the Tigers to adapt to what Leyland calls a changing game, where teams find more ways to score runs than simply out-slugging opponents.

Detroit, of course, had a team built around slugging the ball in 2008 and failed miserably. The Tigers changed course last year and put an emphasis on defense, but the remaining offense they had wasn't enough on several nights. It certainly wasn't as much as it could be.

Two-strike hitting was part of it. According to research on baseball-reference.com, the Tigers hit just .177 in those situations last year, including .222 in full counts. By comparison, the American League as a whole batted .190 with two strikes and .232 in full counts. Tigers' averages on balls put in play in those situations were similarly lower than average.

Their ability to score runs in situations that didn't always require a hit also suffered. According to Bill James Online, the Tigers had 67 situations last year with a runner on third and one out and produced 46 runs out of them, an average of .687 runs per situation. The Major League average was .966. Their runs per occurrence with runners at the corners and one out, runners at second and third with one out, and a runner on third with nobody out also lagged behind the respective league averages.

"We have to do a better job, early in games when infielders are back, just putting a ground ball to shortstop and second base and getting a guy home from third," Leyland said. "We did a poor job of taking advantage of cheap RBIs last year. We have to do a better job at that."

Perhaps none of those situations stood out more than the ninth inning of the Tigers' AL Central tiebreaker at Minnesota, when back-to-back singles from Ramon Santiago and Curtis Granderson put runners at the corners with nobody out in a 4-4 game. Twins closer Joe Nathan retired Placido Polanco on a called third strike, then Magglio Ordonez hit a solid line drive that shortstop Orlando Cabrera caught to start an inning-ending double play.

It was a tough situation against one of the American League's best closers, but it was a microcosm of a problem that plagued the Tigers for much of the year.

"If you go by last year's team," Leyland said, "it would help a lot."

It might not occur very often, and it might occur only when the Tigers are on the road -- and regulars are more likely to get a full game of at-bats than compared with at home -- but it's something Leyland wants his guys to practice.

As Leyland's Pittsburgh Pirates emerged as a power in the National League in the early '90s, and even a little bit before that, they were known for their ability to hit with two strikes. That philosophy carried over into the mid-'90s, when Pittsburgh didn't have the offensive talent to out-slug opponents.

Those early '90s Pirates were squads of emerging young hitters. The Tigers, on the other hand, have a veteran-laden lineup. Somehow, they have to change mindsets.

"A lot of organizations have different philosophies," Leyland said. "My own philosophy is you kind of spread out just a little bit, maybe shorten up on the bat a little bit. However they want to do it as an individual thing. [Hitting coach Lloyd McClendon] has an individual philosophy on it, and we'll talk to them about it, but we have to do a better job."

It's not simply about working counts. Much of that, Leyland said, involves fouling off tough pitches to extend at-bats. That helps in a two-strike approach, but Leyland also wants a greater awareness of situational hitting and what's required in them.

The changing mindset goes beyond situational hitting. To Leyland, it's about the game as a whole.

"I think you're going to see guys do that a little bit better," Leyland said, "because I think the game's changing a little bit. I think you're going to see the importance of the art of baseball being played, it's going to come back into play more than it did maybe the last 10 years, because I think runs are going to be more scarce. I've had mixed emotions on it myself. In the American League, you just slugged the ball."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


“It takes pitching, hitting and defense. Any two can win. All three make you unbeatable.”    
–Joe Garagiola
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