Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Giants Mystery Solved? The Curious Case of Andres Torres and Maybe Juan Uribe

When the Giants added Andres Torres and Juan Uribe to the team at the start of the 2009 season, it got a huge collective yawn from the Giants fandom.  Torres was a career journeyman, heck, he didn't even play enough in the majors to be considered that, he was a career minor leaguer who flashed great speed and defense but not enough hitting to stick in the majors.  The quintessential AAAA player, like Calvin Murray or Jason Ellison.  Uribe was an all-glove, no-hit except that he could hit HRs, but not enough to have a decent OPS.  To most, they were battling to be the 25th man on the roster.

But since the 2009 season began, both Andres Torres and Juan Uribe has been arguably two of our most important hitters on our team.  How did that happen?  How did this transformation come to be?  Perhaps it is clear now, based on what I've read yesterday about Torres's development.

Teddyball Case Study

Fangraphs recently had a great article on Torres, how he would be the starting OF in the All-Star game if the players were selected by WAR (Wins Over Replacement:  a metric for measuring how valuable a player is to his team, covering hitting and defense).  But what was more interesting was a comment by someone regarding how Torres learned to hit, which provided a link to the story of how Torres worked with this expert on the internet on rotational hitting.

By the time line in that story, he happened to learn the "proper" way to hit just before joining the Giants.  That would explain why the Torres we have is nothing like the Torres that was clearly a AAAA hitter.  That would explain why he has been consistently hitting about the same from last season to this season, this is his new profile as a hitter, a plus hitter who can play great defense in the outfield.

An interesting thing is that what the expert taught Torres is basically Ted Williams's techniques for hitting.  How to swing the bat, waiting for your pitch, not swinging at all on balls out of the strike zone.  I was reading through this article, thinking, "gosh, that sounds just like what Ted Williams taught in his great book, the Science of Hitting" and lo and behold, the expert, Chris O'Leary, said that Williams was the first to describe it.  According to the expert, most major leaguers use this swing to be a productive hitter in the majors.  All the things that many hitting instructors teach - squish the bug, swinging linearly, slapping the ball - are not what major league hitters do.

A Mandatory Giants Way Chapter?

And that struck me:  what if the difference between MLB hitters and AAAA hitters is that they know this rotational method and the AAAA hitters don't.   What if a lot of our batters are not hitting correctly?  I know that is what hitting instructors are for, but maybe if it is a chapter in the Giants Way manual, then players would take it more seriously.

But, for now, what if Torres is passing along his tips on hitting to his Latino compadres?  So that got me thinking, could Torres have passed on some tips to Uribe that helped him out in 2009 and now 2010?   He is another hitter on the Giants who is hitting way better than he had before, could he have learned some of the tips that Torres got?  Possibly.

Et Tu Uribe?

Last season, Juan Uribe's batting ratios appeared to be about the same as usual for him, SO%, BB%, but he was a bit lucky on the extra-base hits and homers, and very lucky on his BABIP.  All signs that last season was just an outlier in his career, no reason to give him a huge raise and a starting position.  And that is what all the teams thought, so he decided to sign up with the Giants for another season.

This year, however, despite his BABIP falling more into his career range, he is still hitting well.  Why?  First and foremost, his walk rate is sky high, much higher than it has ever been in his career, 8.0% vs. prior high of 6.3% in 2005 and career 5.4% average.  In addition, he has reduced the number of strikeouts, though minimally and within range of his career, but still good at 17.0%, which is still 3rd best in his 10 season career. and best since 2005-2006.

He has also boosted his rate of homerun hitting to 21.2 AB/HR, which is as good as his great season in 2004, despite hitting more groundballs than flyballs and boosting his HR/FB ratio from the roughly 10% he did before to the 11.3% he currently has.  And a big area of reduction there is him hitting much less infield fly balls, which are pretty much automatic outs, and hitting more grounders that fall in for hits instead.  Plus that means that there are more flyballs going for HRs instead of outs, with his GB/FB and GO/AO much more tilted towards flyballs than before.

Is He For Real?

Is this real?  Looks good so far, but many a player have been lucky over a short season before.  However, he was lucky last year as well.  How long does he need to play before he is not so much lucky as just good?  I would say the rest of the season, though new saber techniques can determine faster based on how he bats, using the stats on Fangraphs, only I haven't learned how to do that yet.

He definitely needs to keep on walking more.  And it is not like he's getting more IBB, he has as much as he ever has, one for the season, and he typically get 0, 1, or 2.  So his bump up in walks is real in that it isn't artificially boosted by teams walking him more, but by him taking more walks.

And he has to continue to not strike out as much, as well as continuing to hit the ball hard and not make outs while hitting more homers.  One of the tenets that O'Leary was teaching to Torres was Ted Williams's idea of hitting the ball hard because hard-hit balls are harder for the defense to field, meaning you get more hits and for more power.  Torres certainly has taken that lesson to heart, he has been hitting for average, taking walks to boost his OBP, and hitting for power.  Uribe seems to be doing more of all that, though not enough to say for certain yet.

Still, last season and this season are his second and third best seasons as a hitter, playing in a park that is basically hitter neutral but does hurt HR power hitters normally (but not him so far), even though he played all of his career before in a clear hitter's park in Chicago, and particularly for getting extra homeruns.  I would have to assume that if each season were adjusted for a neutral park, his two seasons in SF are the two best seasons he has ever had in the majors, and still a far leap above what he did in the seasons leading up to him joining the Giants.

Uribe in 2011?

And if he continues to hit this well, he will probably get a multi-year (no more than 2 years with an option though) contract from the Giants to start at SS for 2011-2012, with Crawford hopefully ready for the majors in 2012-2013.  And Renteria almost assuredly is only playing two seasons for us, though the way he hit when he was healthy for us, he's probably going to get another big contract (just not as big as the one we gave) from someone else.  Probably something similar to what Mark DeRosa got if he continues hitting.

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