Don Mattingly was named hitting coach in 2007 and took on the task of transforming an impatient Dodger team into a more disciplined offensive ball club.
While there has been a lot of focus, and rightfully so, put on the impact of Manny Ramirez’s arrival last season, Mattingly becoming hitting coach was a major factor that turned things around in Los Angeles.
In his two-year stint directing the young Dodger lineup, Mattingly has done what every coach only wishes he can accomplish.
In an era when home runs have become the main focal point of not only the media and fans, but also seemingly the hitters themselves, Mattingly has been able to stress the importance of patience at the plate.
He has simplified the hitter’s game plan at the plate and allowed them to see better pitches to drive. Mattingly encourages the Dodger lineup to work deeper into counts and make a pitcher throw all of their pitches to get one hitter out.
This doesn’t mean the Dodgers go to the plate looking for walks. In fact, they have the leagues highest batting average in 2009.
The lineup demoralizes visiting pitching staff’s by working deep into counts and swinging when they expect a pitch they can drive.
This was best seen during the series in the home run friendly Coors field. They piled up 31 runs amidst a three-game sweep of the hometown Rockies and racked up 43 hits.
Here’s the catch: They didn’t hit a single home run the entire series.
The key to their success is patience, not power.
The Dodger lineup sees more pitches during a game than any other team in the majors. As a team, the Dodgers average 3.94 pitches per at-bat, while the league average is 3.84 pitches per at-bat. Compare that to 2007, before the arrival of hitting coach Mattingly, when the Dodgers averaged 3.63 pitches per plate appearance.
Not surprisingly they also rank first in the NL in walks. This stat is just a result of their overall patience. If a pitcher is trying to be too fine and place his pitches on the corners, the Dodger hitter now have the ability, through their new approach, to stretch an at-bat and force the pitcher into a mistake.
In addition to their patience, the Dodgers have a knack for getting out of the gates early. They lead the majors in runs scored in the first inning and they have outscored opponents 47-14 in the first frame this season.
That means the Dodgers average almost a run every first inning. Such a huge advantage is gained, especially on the road, when a pitcher is given early run support.
This reflects the “patient aggressiveness” that the hitters have developed working under the tutelage of Mattingly.
By patient aggressiveness I mean that Dodger hitters force the pitcher into a favorable count and look for a pitch they can put good lumber on.
The Dodgers take their time and see more 2-0 and 3-0 counts than other clubs. When they get to these counts, it allows the hitter to zone in on a pitch he wants and gives him a better chance to put in play.
Rather than hacking at the first pitch, which gives control of the count to the pitcher, the Dodgers swing at fewer first pitches on average than the rest of the league. When a hitter does swing at the first pitch it gives them less room to look for a pitch they want to hit. As a result, the hitter is left off-balance, which is the last thing they want to be.
Not only does going deeper into the count benefit the current hitter, but it also makes the pitcher work harder and show more of his stuff each at-bat.
The result is shorter outings for opposing starters which lets Los Angeles beat up on relief pitching.
In his career, Mattingly was known for his short swing and low-strikeout rate. In fact, only two times in his 14-year career did Mattingly strikeout more than he walked in a single season.
Mattingly is passing his patience on and one thing is for certain: This lineup is helping the Dodgers keep a stranglehold on the NL West in 2009.