For years and years, it seems too many Houston Astros hitters have been easy outs.
Whenever someone wearing an Astros jersey comes to the plate, that seems to be the ideal time for opposing fielders to start texting about American Idol, Kitchen Nightmares, or President Barack Obama's Hell-thcare bill.
These hitting struggles are something I sincerely hope changes this year.
I'll never forget that fateful day in the 1988 season when the Astros lost at home—again—to the San Francisco Giants. The Astros' hitting in that game had been appalling.
So, as the team prepared to eat the post-game meal on that day 22 years ago, take showers, and go home and enter the Witness Protection Program so no pesky reporters (bloggers didn't exist then) could find them, they received word they were wanted back on the field.
Hal Lanier, in what would be his final year as Astros manager, brought out the batting cage and ordered the team to take batting practice again.
Normally something done before the game, this no doubt must've been humiliating.
That season, Rafael Ramirez "led" the Astros with a .276 batting average. Aside from Glenn Davis' 30 home runs, only Kevin Bass (with 14 four baggers) had more than 10 home runs. There have been unconfirmed reports that the team was no-hit during batting practice on three occasions.
I don't have the link, but I remember Sports Illustrated reported in that season that Astros management wanted Bass (who threw right-handed and was a switch hitter) to consider hitting right-handed only since he struggled so much.
(Having briefly met Bass in 2000 during an autograph show, it seems amusing now since I saw firsthand that Bass, despite throwing right-handed and being a better right-handed hitter, writes left-handed).
ADD moment aside, let's return back to the ranch.
In their postseason appearances against the Atlanta Braves, it always seemed to me that Houston kept laying off the hittable strikes thrown by Greg Maddux and Tommy Glavine while going fishing for bad pitches destined to be easy pop-ups or harmless grounders.
Looking at Davis, sometimes I wonder if Houston's overcomplicating the hitting process.
In 1986, probably his best season in baseball, Davis hit 31 home runs playing half his games in the cavernous Astrodome. He also had a .265 average and 101 RBI (the only time in his Major League career he'd eclipse the century mark in runs batted in).
That season, Davis also struck out 72 times. For a power hitter, this was surprisingly low, especially when you consider free swingers like Rob Deer.
I remember watching Davis that year and the next and marveling at how few bad pitches he swung at. It was as if he went up to the plate looking specifically for a pitch to drive and wouldn't chase anything outside, up out of the strike zone, or down in the dirt. He hit many fly-ball outs. But he also did something else considered unthinkable in the Astrodome—hit lots of home runs.
Lesson to be learned: When you don't swing at bad pitches, a pitcher has three choices—throw you something good, walk you, or call 911 and request an immediate demotion to the minor leagues.
And then, Davis' strikeout numbers steadily grew up to 123 for the 1989 season.
In one game in New York broadcast on NBC, the announcer was trying to tell the story about Davis' refusal to be part of a Budweiser promotion. The announcer then had to prematurely end his story because Davis struck out on a pitch that was nowhere near the strike zone.
What happened with Davis? It's possible that playing in Houston in a stadium where warning track outs were 400-foot home runs in other parks may have adversely impacted him. When a guy tries to keep hitting home runs, perhaps he tries too hard and finds himself swinging at more and more bad pitches.
Instead of more home runs, you get more strikeouts.
My two youngest sons are going to play Little League baseball this summer, and as I was throwing pitches to them, this was something I told them. A few pitches were really bad, and both boys swung at them anyway. "Don't become the opposing pitcher's best friend!" I told them.
Before long, both were swinging at only the strike-zone pitches.
Simple, dime-store advice? Perhaps. But over the years I've seen the Astros go through hitting instructors the way Amy Winehouse goes through bottles of booze. Houston's hitters still struggle in the clutch. Maybe it really is as simple of developing a discipline at the plate: Swing at good pitches. Avoid the bad ones.
I know hitting a baseball is much harder than it looks, but it's the best this Astros fan can do for his team.
Richard Zowie is a blogger and a longtime Houston Astros fan. He's not sure what he dislikes more—when the Astros struggle or those Astros-on-a-Train uniforms. He still has that Kevin Bass autographed ball on his dresser and has no plans to put it on eBay. Post comments here or e-mail Richard at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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