CLEVELAND — The resurgence of the Rays offense didn’t come from a threat-laced ultimatum, nor a scream-filled session behind closed doors, or going really old school, tables of food being flipped over in the clubhouse for effect and attention.
Rather it started with an observation by hitting coach Chad Mottola. Which led to a conversation with manager Kevin Cash. That sparked a deep-data dive by the staff to provide verification. And, ultimately, the foundation for positive-framed communication to address it with the players.
In trying to figure out why the Rays had such a fallow July, Mottola started thinking about things they had done so well over the first three months of the season, when they roared through April at a record pace and sported robust numbers through June, averaging 5.63 runs a game, hitting .265 with an .801 team OPS in compiling a majors-best 57-28 record.
Then in July, they all went cold, averaging 3.62 runs, hitting .216 with a .673 OPS, going 8-16.
Mottola started honing in on swing decisions, especially early in counts. Without sharing the specifics of their internal report, he said the change from April-June to July was stark.
“Long story short, we were getting too aggressive in certain counts,” Mottola said. “And it was pretty black and white. So it was an easy message.”
How to deliver it was important. He didn’t summon the players for a special session, nor create an elaborate presentation. Instead, at a late-July pre-series advance meeting to go over the opponents’ pitchers, Mottola told them what they had been doing so well, how they had gotten away from it in chasing pitches, and the impact it had.
He brought printouts that showed the collective difference, and individually for those who asked. Extra copies were taped to the indoor batting cages as subtle reminders, and still are, updated with the latest data for players to see and compare.
“It was more count-based, more swing decision-based rather than result-based: ‘This is what we were doing earlier in the year, and this is what we need to get back to, and this is what we’re doing now,’ ” Mottola explained.
Words, then action
The tricky part was getting them to adjust without losing aggressiveness in other counts.
“It’s almost more of a subconscious thought," he said. “By no means go in there and be passive. That’s the last thing we want to do. But it’s balancing. If (our hitters are) leaving the zone very often, the league adjusts, and we need to adjust to those things back and forth."
Of additional concern, the struggles — which more than coincided with facing well-armed teams such as the Phillies, Braves and Rangers — were spreading to just about all the hitters (except Yandy Diaz) and impacting their approaches.
“I don’t want to say you’re ever in the at-bat chasing the numbers … but you get a little too excited, trying to create the damage rather than sitting back and letting the pitcher," Mottola said.
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“I think that was more of human nature of getting a couple games of not getting those same results individually. And that’s real. When you’re having the performance that everybody’s having — the home runs and the runs scoring — and it goes away for a game or two, you start pressing. And, unfortunately, it stretched about a month long."
It takes time
In asking the players to be more patient with their swings, the coaches and staff knew they had to do the same in expecting to see improvement.
“There’s information out there saying that we had changed from our first months of maybe expanding (the strike zone) on pitches in different counts, here and there," Cash said.
“And I think Chad did a good job of kind of sitting the guys down, reminding them. And that doesn’t happen overnight. You can hear it, but it takes a little time for it to come together.
“But I’m happy that it did get through."
That seemed to be the case, as the Rays in August averaged 6.08 runs a game, hit .281, averaged 1.4 homers and posted an .820 OPS. Plus, they hit a franchise single-month best .338 with runners in scoring position, compared to .197 in July.
Wear and tear
Plus, there was the “it’s baseball” factor, the conventional wisdom which often proves true that the six-month length of the season essentially forces there to be down stretches, both individually and collectively.
And for many of the Rays hitters, that was July.
“It’s hard to say exactly what (it was)," said veteran Brandon Lowe. “I think everyone understands we had a down month. But that’s just kind of what happened.
“With the season that we have and how long it is, and how taxing it is on the body, to say that we’re going to keep up the offensive numbers and production that we had for the first two or three months … just eventually you’re going to slump. You’re going to hit balls hard and you’re going to get out.
“It just so happened to happen to everybody the same time. But I think as we’re seeing, everybody’s kind of come out of it the same time as well. August (was) a good month, we’ve been playing good baseball, and hopefully we can keep it rolling.”
A team effort
Mottola likes what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, with more of a team-oriented, pass-the-baton approach.
“You see guys not pressing in trying to do the job that at-bat,” he said “We’re accepting walks, we’re accepting getting deeper into counts. It’s one of those things that you see the exhale.”
As a result, the vibe, and the collective confidence, from early in the season is starting to come back. “A little bit,” said Jose Siri, via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “It’s starting to feel like that.”
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