5.3.03 - Does anyone remember
the old Nomar?
The bigger the situation, the harder
he'd hit the ball. Everything was a rope. Or a bomb. Remember those two
playoff series against the Indians? Or the ALCS against the Yankees? In 54
postseason plate appearances he has an impossible 1.399 OPS with a .383
BA, .463 OBP and a .936 slugging percentage. These numbers just don't
happen in October.
During his back-to-back batting title
seasons of 1999 and 2000 I'm sure Nomar popped weakly to the right side on
a pitch out of the strike zone a couple of times. I just can't remember
it. Now it seems to happen every time he comes to the plate with a runner
in scoring position.
Can it all be traced to Sept. 25, 1999
when Baltimore's Al Reyes dotted Nomar on the longitudinal tendon? Nomar
played the entire 2000 season with the tendon fraying, hit .372 and, most
encouragingly, drew a career high 61 walks. But then the dam burst, the
tendon split and all the progress he had made in raising his OBP from .345
his rookie year to .439 in year four was seemingly wiped away. When he
came back, he was jumping at the ball, swinging at everything and
resolutely refusing to draw a walk as he posted a .352 OBP in 21 games.
But 21 post-surgery games was hardly a
fair sample to gauge just how much Nomar had regressed in his hitting
approach. So we all waited with bated breath for 2002. He had almost 700
plate appearances last year and walked 41 times, repeating the .352 OBP he
had put up in his abbreviated 2001 season. The strength certainly seemed
to have returned to his wrist as he piled up 85 extra-base hits, including
24 home runs. But the modicum of patience he was slowly starting to
develop over his first four seasons was gone.
Compounding the OBP problem, Nomar was
no longer killing first pitches. Why?
I think something else was happening
concurrently with Nomar's rehabilitation/
comeback. Word was going around: Do not throw this guy a first pitch
strike. He will chase balls up, he will chase balls down, he will chase
balls away. So when Nomar returned to full strength, he was facing a
completely different league, a league in which the only first-pitch
strikes he saw were mistakes. He didn't adjust, hitting .325 on first
pitches, down from .432 in 2000. Nomar defenders, indeed Nomar himself,
will say, "What's wrong with hitting .325?" Well, while .325 is an
excellent batting average, it is a lousy on-base percentage, and no one
ever drew a walk by putting the first pitch in play. Furthermore, giving
pitchers one-pitch outs 67.5 percent of the time is no way to get into the
opposition bullpen. So far this year, Nomar seems to have regressed even
more with a .323 OBP in the reasonable sample of 140 plate
appearances. Apparently someone didn't get the memo about building pitch
counts because he's walked only six times, on pace for a 715-AB, 34-walk
Particularly distressing has been
Nomar's inability to hit with men in scoring position. It's not just the
outs, it's the kind of outs. It has become all too familiar. The Sox
arduously load the bases (often through steely patience), the crowd rises
in expectation, the opposing pitcher is hanging by a thread. And Nomar
pops up the first pitch, deflating the team, the crowd and his OBP and BA
Pitchers are naturally more cautious
with runners in scoring position (particularly if first base is open),
meaning hitters should be more selective, but Nomar becomes completely
incontinent in these situations, often lunging at first pitches as if he
were saddled with an 0-2 count and forced to protect the plate. So far
this season he is 6-for-39 with RISP, a .154 batting average. He should
bat behind Manny for two reasons: one, because he has a much lower OBP,
and, two, so that he could watch from the proximity of the on-deck circle
a professional hitter who understands the value of getting his pitch.
But on a deeper, more philosophical
level, why do you suppose Nomar is such an undisciplined, impatient
hitter? I would argue that he is medically incapable of patience. Stay
with me here.
In case you haven't noticed, Nomar
Garciaparra has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The batting gloves, the
spikes, the dugout steps. He is ticking at a different RPM. I'll bet he's
not real good at sitting in traffic either. All the ticks, the tugs, the
tap dancing down the steps would be merely quirky and endearing if he
could then slow himself down when the pitcher comes to the set. Relax,
pick out a zone and a pitch and work the at-bat until you get that pitch
you can drive. Manny is so relaxed at the plate he looks like he could nod
off in the wind-up and awake in time to hit yet another rocket. The
difference: Manny needs to be convinced to swing by the attractiveness of
the pitch; Nomar needs to be convinced not to swing by the unreachability
of a pitch.
But wait, you say, Nomar had OCD when
he was winning batting titles and getting on base over 40% of the
time. True, but for some reason pitchers were throwing him strikes. The
coiled snake, high-strung nervous energy of OCD is probably a good thing
when pitchers are throwing cookies. Combine the new book on Nomar with his
old habits, however, and you get too many easy outs and an unacceptably
low OBP for such a gifted hitter.
Even when pitchers do throw him first
pitch strikes with men in scoring position, it's often a breaking ball,
like the hanging curve he belted from Roy Halliday to double home the
tying run before hitting his solo walk-off shot two innings later.
The solution? Nomar should approach
first pitches like most hitters view 3-1 pitches. If it's not a fatty in
his happy zone, he should take it. He'll find he's up in the count 1-0 an
awful lot. At 1-0, narrow the happy zone even further. Once he starts
getting ahead 2-0 and 3-1, he'll have a month where he hits .400 and word
will get out that Nomar is no longer expanding the zone on first pitches
and we'll see a return to those 1999 and 2000 numbers.
If Nomar develops some peace and
stillness at the plate, watch out. Cure the OCD and you'll cure the OBP.
Take a pitch, buddy.