Accepting your walks, recognizing the strike zone, and finding the right pitches for you to hit. Davey Martinez and Co. on the Washington Nationals’ coaching staff this past season preached plate discipline for all their hitters, but it was a particular focus for the younger hitters on the big league roster who are developing their games at the major league level: Luis García, Keibert Ruiz, and CJ Abrams.
“Our hitting, our young hitters got a little bit better,” Martinez reiterated when he spoke with reporters at the Winter Meetings earlier this month in San Diego, CA.
“We talked a lot about the chase rate,” he explained. “And the three guys that we really worked with, they did improve a lot. So we’re hoping that we improve that a little bit more.”
It’s still something all three need to improve upon, but as their manager said, he saw progress as the season went along, with Ruiz, 24, up the whole year (until he got injured in September), García, 22, joining the team in June after he’d started the season at Triple-A, and Abrams, 22, coming up in mid-August after he was acquired from San Diego at the August 2nd trade deadline and assigned to the club’s top minor league affiliate to start his time with organization after he made his MLB debut with the Padres earlier in the summer.
“I think once that chase rate went down, they hit the ball fairly hard,” Martinez said. “For guys like CJ, as we talked about, if he gets on base for us, with his speed, he could make things happen on the bases as well.
“So I think he finally understood that a little bit better, and it’s something that he really wants to work on in Spring Training, just kind of trying to get on base, not trying to do too much, understanding counts, hitting in counts.
“For me, [the thing] for some of those young guys as well, is talk about situational hitting and knowing what to do. Guy’s on second base, no outs, knowing what to do. Guy’s on third base with less than two outs, we’ve got to get better at that. We’ve got to drive in those runs.
“If you look at our lineup, we don’t have a guy that’s going to hit 30, 40 home runs, but we do have guys that can put the ball in play and drive in runs otherwise.”
GM Mike Rizzo too talked about the need to improve plate discipline for the young hitters on the Nats’ roster, using several former Nationals as examples of what a difference real strike zone discipline can make.
“Plate discipline — all the great hitters have plate discipline,” Rizzo explained, noting that you can be aggressive and disciplined at the same time.
“You look at the great players that we’ve had over our past — [Juan] Soto, [Bryce] Harper, [Anthony] Rendon, great plate discipline, get more and better pitches to hit and it leads to more success. I think that not so much being less aggressive, but being aggressive with more hittable pitches. Getting into good hitters’ counts is obviously a big determinant of how you perform, and I think it’s a big part of it. I saw some big strides with all three of those guys throughout the season, and if they continue to grow like that we’ll be satisfied.”
With the former Nationals’ hitters he mentioned, of course, the strike zone discipline appeared to be an inherent trait, but is it something you can teach at the big league level?
“I think that it can be improved upon,” Rizzo said. “I don’t think they need to be fully taught the strike zone. I think they have a feel for it, and those three [Ruiz, García, and Abrams] in particular have a feel for the barrel of the bat which is very important too.”
Can patience be taught to a hitter who has that innate feel for the barrel he’d described?
“I wouldn’t even describe it as patience,” the GM in D.C. said.
“I think it’s recognition. Recognize the pitch that you can damage with, and attack it. And so hit hitters’ pitches, and try to stay away from pitchers’ pitches. And to get count-leverage, that’s an important ingredient to do that.”
“I thought we were pretty successful with CJ. When he came over to us,” Martinez said of trying to instill more plate discipline at the major league level. “He hit .225 for San Diego. I think for us he ended up hitting like .260. Because his chase rate went from 46 percent to 36 percent. If we could get him down in the lower even 30s next year, he’s going to be that much better.”