BOSTON – They work at it every day before games, Toronto Blue Jays hitting coach Chad Mottola preaching a more relaxed approach at the plate and J.P. Arencibia trying to lock in on the timing to make it happen.
Progress, they both believe, is being made, even if the results have yet to come.
Since May 29, Arencibia is batting .163 with two doubles, three homers, eight RBIs, six walks and 28 strikeouts in 89 at-bats though Sunday’s play, often making life too easy for opposing pitchers by expanding the zone.
“Sometimes when things don’t go as planned you try to put more effort or try to work harder and do different things,” says Arencibia. “Maybe sometimes it’s just slowing it down. Adam Lind is the perfect example. Sometimes less is more and it’s easy to say that during batting practice, and it’s easy to do that in the cages, but once you’re out there in the game and there’s adrenaline and stuff going on, not that it speeds up, but your swing is a little harder.
“It’s just being able to go out there and really try to slow it down.”
Given Arencibia’s driven mindset, accomplishing that is going to take some work.
The 27-year-old firmly believes in his track record as a run-producer and heads to the batter’s box intent on making things happen, with an aggressiveness that can both help and hurt him.
Frustration is building, with manager John Gibbons complaining that the Blue Jays “just didn’t get any production down in the bottom of the lineup,” in Sunday’s 5-4 loss to the Boston Red Sox.
Arencibia went 0-for-3 with a walk, but came up with the bases loaded and none out in the sixth and popped to short.
Of late, Mottola sees an antsy hitter too eager to deliver, trying to make it happen with whatever the pitcher throws up, as opposed to hunting for something to unload on.
“What I believe is guys’ personalities show up in their swing and their approach and that’s definitely the way J.P. is,” says Mottola. “He wants to get it done now, instead of going ahead and getting a guy 2-0, and just because you’re 2-0 doesn’t mean you’re getting a heater down the middle. The way they watch film in this league they all know what’s going on, they are still in command of his at-bat at 2-0 right now because they’ll throw off-speed and he’ll expand the zone.
“It’s getting that mindset to trust the work we’re putting in and bringing it into the game. And at times it looks like he’s not working the way we want to work, but I know each day in, day out, we’re putting the time in and results will show in time during games.”
There’s ample room for improvement, and the numbers bear out how slowing things down would benefit Arencibia.
While he entered Sunday’s play averaging 4.00 pitches per plate appearance, above the league average of 3.87, he’s often in a position where he’s fighting back in counts, rather than forcing the pitcher’s hand.
He’s swung at an astonishing 52 per cent of all pitches thrown at him, second on the Blue Jays only to Emilio Bonifacio, while the league average is 45 per cent. On the first pitch, he swings 33 per cent of the time, well above the league average of 25 per cent.
But perhaps most telling is that only 12 per cent of his at-bats have gone to a 2-0 count, two per cent reached 3-0, and five per cent 3-1 – the prime opportunities to get a cookie to mash.
To put those rates in perspective, Jose Bautista’s at-bats reach 2-0 counts 19 per cent of the time, 3-0 six per cent of the time, and 3-1 in 16 per cent of his trips.
Adam Lind’s rates are 14, five and 10 while the league averages are 14, five and nine.
That’s why Mottola feels Arencibia’s problems are “more mental that leads to mechanical.”
“Once he steps between the lines, the mechanics go away because his mentality is go fast, fast, fast,” he continues. “We start with the mental approach, which in time will take care of the mechanics, and then allow him to slow the game down. As soon as he steps into the box and sees the guy at third, it’s 0-0 and all of a sudden auto-swing sometimes shows up. He knows, I know, a lot of the fans know, and it’s just one of those things where his desire gets in the way.”
A hindrance at the moment, honed right that same desire could help Arencibia take a step forward.
Though his blocking still needs work, some around the team say he’s made significant defensive gains in receiving, target-setting and game-calling from last year to this.
The block he made at the plate on Shane Victorino in recording a pivotal out in Saturday’s 6-2 win over the Boston Red Sox drew him wide praise, while less noted was the heads-up sliding block he made on an errant Colby Rasmus throw home to keep runners from advancing later in the game.
The same determination to improve behind the plate gives him the potential to improve at it, too.
“We’re trying to get him to get ready early enough to recognize the pitch, and see the ball a little better,” says Mottola. “It’s going well in practice and it’s not showing up as much as we’d like in the games. We just have to stick to it and the more we get it done, the more it will show up in the games and get him to relax.”
In Arencibia’s mind, the key in bringing things together the way he did in April when his OPS was .833 is in rediscovering his rhythm.
“When your timing is good, you’re seeing the pitches, you’re not swinging at the bad pitches and that’s really most of the battle,” he says. “You can take a couple of pitches, try to see if you’re seeing it better, and then say, ‘All right, that’s where I feel like I need to be.’ There’s been progress. Last week I felt good, went down to Tampa and had a couple of hits. It’s just about getting back to being comfortable in my timing. Those are things I have to get better at.”
Waiting for the payoff is the hardest part.