Back in early spring training, Ron Gardenhire was quoted in a Star Tribune story as making statements that were dismissive, if not downright encouraging, of the free-swinging tendencies displayed by new acquisitions Carlos Gomez and Delmon Young. About Gomez, Gardenhire said, "He was hacking; nothing wrong with that." About Young: "All the on-base percentage [stats] and all those things -- he's dangerous when he lets that thing fly and gets fastballs ... We're going to want him to swing this year more than taking a lot of pitches and watching them go by."
After reading the story, I had the following reaction:
In my mind, Jacque Jones and -- to a lesser extent -- Hunter never really reached their full potential as Twins, because they were free swingers who never developed any plate discipline. Apparently the Twins didn't learn a lesson, because Gardenhire doesn't seem to have any interest in preaching patience to Gomez or Young, both of whom have displayed poor on-base skills throughout their careers thus far. This is unfortunate. I'm not trying to say that a player can't be great without the ability to take walks -- Kirby Puckett and Tony Oliva come to mind as guys who did just that -- but boy, does it help... particularly for a guy like Gomez who projects to hit at the top of the order.
More than three weeks into the season now, it seems that Gomez and Young embraced their manager's acceptance of their aggressive natures at the plate. Gomez and Young have swung at 55 and 56 percent of all pitches, respectively, to lead all Twins offensive regulars. The results haven't been as positive as Gardenhire may have estimated back in March.
In 89 plate appearances this season, Gomez has struck out 24 times while drawing just two walks. In conjuction with his low batting average, this has worked out to a .247 on-base percentage, which is nothing short of horrendous and which renders the offensive advantage he gains with his excellent speed essentially moot. Young is a better contact hitter and has struck out just 13 times, but he has drawn only three walks in 83 plate appearances for a .277 OBP.
The hope is that swinging away freely would at least allow these sizable hitters to show some power, but that has not been the case. Neither player has hit a home run, and neither possesses a slugging percentage higher than .316.
Teaching plate discipline is an exceedingly difficult task, and in some cases it is simply impossible. Once batters reach the major leagues, their tendencies at the plate are already ingrained, and often it just isn't feasible for a hitting coach to completely transform the style of hitting that has made these players successful enough to reach the highest level of competition in the first place. Yet, I found it bothersome that Gardenhire was so eager to endorse -- rather than make a modest effort to assuage -- these players' free-swinging tendencies during the spring, and now we're finding out just why such a plate approach can be faulty. You can get by being a free swinger if you've got the raw ability of a Vladimir Guerrero or an Alfonso Soriano, but at this point Young has been unable to catch up with major-league fastballs and Gomez has been unable to recognize unhittable breaking pitches. Both of these flaws could eventually be ironed out through experience, but for the time being, it's difficult to imagine that these players will have any success in the near future while sticking with that overly aggressive approach.