Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Ishikawa Responds to Kick in the Pants
On May 9th, Bochy openly noted that Ishikawa could use some time off starting, including batting against RHP, because he was not always taking good swings. Ishikawa noted his mantra of the past two seasons, that he does best when he puts things in the hands of God and not over think when batting. This seems to have worked.
Since May 10th, when he ended up starting against Jeff Weaver, a non-benching verbal benching technique that Bochy had done previously to Cain and Lincecum, he has played in 12 games, starting 11, and hitting .375/.487/.500/.987 with 1 HR in 32 AB, 6 walks and 8 strikeouts, and 6 RBIs. Up to then he had struck out 23 times (almost 34%!) in only 68 AB with only 3 walks, though still 9 RBIs, while batting a horrid .191/.243/.250/.493. And that included his nice hitting in his first three games, when he went 4 for 13 with only 1 strikeout, hitting .308/.308/.462/.769, otherwise he was even worse than that horrid batting line.
His main problem up to then was that when there were no baserunners, he didn't hit very well, but was OK when men were in RISP, particularly when it was bases loaded. Obviously, his strikeouts were a big killer, when he was doing well in the minors, he kept his strikeout rate to 20-25% (or 75% to 80% contact rate). He obviously was lost the first part of the 2009 season.
In the Hands of God
But he appears to have cleared his mind and, as he puts it, leave it to the hands of God how and what he does (that is, by not worrying about the results and overthink while batting, which takes him away from his natural mechanics of see ball, hit ball). Even before yesterday's great day hitting, he was hitting .286/.429/.321/.750 overall during his streak since the public spanking.
He got a further rebuke from Sabean this weekend, when Jesus Guzman was brought up, with the intent that he will see starts at 1B, and while Ishikawa hasn't lost his job, the Giants are now actively looking for a hitter, even a free agent one, in trade, since the offense has not developed the way the Giants had expected. Since Sabean noted that Ishikawa and Burriss will both lose time to Guzman and Frandsen - ostensibly to recreate the spring training competition that caused both to excel - that would suggest that those are positions they will target, though they are not bound to those positions.
Since this lastest rebuke, he has played in 3 games, starting 2, and, obviously with the great game yesterday (4 for 4 with a homer), is hitting great, with a .571/.667/1.000/1.667 batting line, going 4 for 7, with a homer, 3 RBI, 2 walks, though 2 strikeouts too, and even a stolen base, which is actually part of his package in the minors, he could steal a base every once in a while, and was around 10 SB for 3 of his 7 seasons.
And breaking it up even further, though obviously all small samples right now, from May 10th to May 21st, after Bochy and before Sabean, in 9 starts he was hitting .320/.433/.360/.793, going 8 for 25, with 4 walks and 6 strikeouts, but little power. So it appears he first got his mechanics going OK, as shown by his lowered strikeout percentage and increased number of walks - both of which have been signs that he was going OK at the plate in the minors. And now he has his first homer of the season too with his great day of hitting yesterday, raising his numbers to at least MLB borderline levels, to .250/.327/.330/.657, which is not acceptable yet, but obviously better than what he was hitting up to Bochy's kick in the pants.
Earlier Ishikawa was nowhere near what he was when he was going good in the minors, in terms of his mechanics. Clearly, he's never going to be that great a hitter in the majors, based on his minor league results, he just strikes out too many times. But when he is going good, he has a good package of taking a good number of walks while, when not striking out, hitting the ball hard and far when he does connect, for a fair number of homers. He is the classic "Three True Outcomes" hitter when he is going good, he won't hit for average, but will pile up the walks and strikeouts, while also hitting a fair number of homers to boot.
Despite the good hitting of the past, roughly, two weeks, the book is still decidedly not written on Ishikawa. Despite all the consternation of many Giants fans over him, this is what Ishikawa seems to go through almost every every year in the miniors, particularly early in his pro career. He would be hitting horribly into sometime mid-May, then finally the light would turn on and then he would hit great the rest of the season.
For example, in 2007, he was sub .600 OPS for April to June in AA, then once he got injured and kicked back down to San Jose in July, he was 57 for 215 with 19 walks and 82 strikeouts, with 15 doubles and 15 HR, for a great .265/.323/.553/.876 batting line that second half of the season. That started an uptrend for him in his minors career that carried into 2008, though not without his early struggles again, in April 2008, he hit .205/.313/.289/.602 with 1 HR in 83 AB, before boosting things up later, going 104 for 322 with 23 HR, hitting .323/.394/.652/1.046 for the rest of the season.
And he was streaky in the majors last year too. He had a nice 5 game stretch to start, then was bad fro 7 games, then was great for 11 games, then was bad again for 10 games. Streakiness has been his nature as a pro.
This is a classic example of the phenomenon that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in his article from the New Yorker, The Art of Failure. When learning, there is explicit learning, when your mind is actively involved in controlling your body as you learn, and implicit learning, which is "learning that takes place outside of awareness." When anyone get good at any physical movement and activity, it is implicit learning that controls your body. But, "under conditions of stress, however, the explicit system sometimes takes over," and causes the player to lose the fluidity and touch they exhibit when reacting using their implicit system. That is what causes players to choke, say, when playing in the playoffs, or facing the last hitter of the game for the save.
I had been meaning to write about this for Barry Zito, but just never got around to it. And it is not just Zito, but for many pro players, when they get that big contract, they revert to their explicit system, the learning they did when they first started, instead of relying on the unconscious skills they control while rising the ranks and becoming a top pro. Not every pro is bothered by this, Barry Bonds clearly never had that problem, in fact, he raised his levels of standards in his first year with the Giants. But you can see that some players do, like Zito, like Carlos Beltran in his first season with the Mets, like Tim Hudson in 2006 after he signed that huge contract extension, like A.J. Burnett this year, after a nice start, he has been horrible since his 3rd start of the season, walking too many, striking out less, 6.04 ERA.
This usage of the explicit system appears to be the problem for Ishikawa, particularly given all his comments about his approach when he is going good - leaving it in the hands of God. As he has shown the past couple of weeks, and in the latter half of a number of his seasons in the minors, when his mind is clear and he's just hitting, he can be a pretty good hitter overall, low BA, but a lot of power and patience that leads to a high OBP and SLG.
Those, with strikeouts, leads to a pretty high overall pitches per plate appearance, which is 4.03 this season despite his lack of walks earlier (he was 4.28 last season). Which is a good complement to the Giants other hitters, who are more free swingers who use fewer pitches. Ishikawa, if he qualified, would be tied for 24th in the NL in pitches per PA.
The Giants as a team is not that good, unsurprisingly. Fred Lewis is 9th in the league with 4.26, and Renteria is up there too, with a 3.94, which is good for 42nd. Randy Winn is tied for 75th with 3.66 and Burriss is 78th with 3.63 (out of 94 starters in NL who qualify for the batting title). Sandoval is low at 3.48, but he's still ahead of Rowand, who is at 3.37, and Molina is the worse, with 3.21. Not sure what the mean is, but the median is 3.92, so really, most of the hitters are much below the median, with only Lewis and Ishikawa being above, and not really for a great reason, as both has struck out way too many times this season.
People tend to forget that he's only 24 years old for this season. A player's prospect-dom isn't over until he's 27, typically. So, he is like a lot of prospects just up, still figuring out some things, while also figuring out things at the major league level. It's not a situation like Niekro, who did not come up until much older and only exhibited power later too, Ishikawa is still young and some more learning to do.
One problem is that Ishikawa has been with us for 6 years now, and that probably bothers some people, but some prospects take a while to mature and do well, look at how long it took Carlos Pena to meet the high expectations teams had for him. Ishikawa is not the prospect Pena was, but still, it takes some players some time to figure out how to be consistent as a hitter. But as Ishikawa shows in the periods when he is on, he can be quite an offensive force.
I think Ishikawa is capable of being not only an average 1B, where his great defense boosts up his poor offense to average contribution overall, but also of being one of the better 1B in the league. As I noted above, he can be quite a good hitter when he is on. As I noted in previous posts, his platoon split against LHP is not that bad compared with the good left-handed hitters of the league.
The key, as it is with any prospect, is getting him to be consistently playing his A-game instead of his F-game. Because that's where he is right now, he is either on or he's off, there is not a lot of in-between. But when he is on, he can be an offensive force, with an OPS in the 900's, 1000's. That's why he should be given more of a chance than Niekro to figure things out, to see if he can do that regularly. He is young, he has shown a lot more power, and he plays great defense to boot.
The good news to me is that the Giants have not given up on Ishikawa. While they gave him more pressure by bringing up Guzman and stating he's going to see playing time at 1B now, that is more a rebuke of Rich Aurilia's poor play thus far, than Ishiwaka, though he was specifically called out by Sabean when discussing the disappointments of the 2009 season. Guzman will see some hitting against RHP, but Ishikawa will probably still get most of the ABs, particularly as he is hitting and Guzman has been struggling.
They at least is giving him a chance to prove that he belongs, which is all anyone can ask for, particularly when hitting as poorly as Ishikawa had until May 10th. He just needs to keep his mantra going: see ball, hit ball, and not overthink things. Hopefully he can figure out some mnemonic that he can keep or hang in his locker to remind him (like a cross on a necklace?). But clearly, he has very good skills that he can exhibit, on and off, and now he has to figure out how to do it consistently (much like Jonathan Sanchez, who started yesterday's game).
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