The Cleveland Indians finished the regular season with 777 runs scored. That qualified as fifth-most in the majors. Their lineup was more speed than power — they led the American League in steals — but they weren’t exactly the 1959 Go-Go Sox. The club logged over 500 extra-base hits, and they finished fourth in the junior circuit in both wOBA and wRC+.
Ty Van Burkleo deserves much of the credit. Cleveland’s hitting coach for each of the past four seasons, the 53-year-old Van Burkleo espouses an approach built on patience and controlled aggression. There’s an overall philosophy. At the same time, however, he recognizes that each hitter has strengths he needs to optimize.
Van Burkleo shared his views on hitting in two separate conversations. I spoke to him on the eve of the World Series, and again when the team was at Wrigley Field.
Van Burkleo on why the Indians offense was productive: “As a group — as nine guys in the lineup — everybody competes together. It’s not relying on just one or two guys to carry the load. We’ve had 11 walk-offs and I think they’ve been by nine different guys. Somebody is doing their part every day.
“For us, it’s a cohesive approach as far as passing the torch and making the pitcher work. We want to make every at-bat a difficult at-bat for him. You’re not going to get a hit every time, but if you can put together quality at-bats, even if you make an out, that can eventually tire him. You can get into a team’s bullpen and hopefully get more favorable matchups.”
On matchups and game-planning: “I’ll look at how a guy a matches up with a pitcher and how the pitcher went after him the last time. There is a group discussion, when we have our advance meeting, but there are individual discussions as well. That’s usually when they come through the cage. You want to be on the same page with a hitter as far as, ‘This is what he did against you, this is where you were effective, this is where maybe you weren’t effective, and this is what you want to do today.’
“Every starter has his strengths, but I think most teams are going to identify how to attack guys, and work that around what their own strengths are. If you have some hitters who don’t hit the ball away well, or don’t handle the changeup well, maybe you’ll see more of that.
“Teams — their starters — are going to have a game plan for our hitters throughout the lineup. Relievers pretty much come in with their mix, usually a two-pitch mix. I don’t think Aroldis Chapman is going to come in and worry about not wanting to throw a fastball to a guy because he’s a good fastball hitter. Starters are pitching to more of a game plan, to more of a scouting report, than a reliever will.”
On game-planning for the Cubs: “I think we’ve done a pretty good job of it. The toughest guy so far has been Jake Arrieta, because he’s got such good stuff and he really wasn’t locating. They’d set up in, and he’d throw one down and away, or vice versa. He was effectively wild, with really, really good stuff.
“You can’t really [game plan] against Chapman. I mean, he throws 104 mph. The best game plan is to get him below the belt — no higher than the belt — because it’s really hard to catch up when he’s up in the zone. He’ll flip in a slider here or there, but you can’t afford to get off the fastball. You have to be aggressive to his fastball. Typically, you’re hitting off the fastball, one location or another — preferably to your strength — against any pitcher.
“A guy like Kyle Hendricks pitches away a lot. He’s good at locating down and away with his fastball, sinking, and with a good changeup. He’ll keep you honest by running pitches in. He’s going to pitch to a game plan. Against Tyler Naquin he’s going to try to elevate, and come in with the cutter a little bit. Naquin has to stick with his strengths, which aren’t Hendricks’ strengths. [Hendricks’] strengths match up pretty well with Naquin.
“Sometimes you have to make adjustments. The last time we faced Jon Lester, he was fastball heavy early. We got a few runs, and then he started throwing a lot of offspeed pitches. I have to make sure guys have identified that. Let them know, ‘Hey, he’s going to a lot more breaking balls and changeups. Keep that in mind.’”
On adjustments and swing personalities: “Lonnie Chisenhall has done a great job of making swing adjustments. He’s really getting to where he’s on the fastball and handling a larger part of the zone. Jose Ramirez has done a great job of staying aggressive and attacking the baseball. At the same time, he’s being patient, attacking in the strike zone where he likes the ball.
“As a hitter, you have things with your swing that you’re trying to master. Getting it working as efficiently as possible takes time. It takes work to get a feel for what’s going on with it. The more you get your swing to where it’s most efficient, the easier it is to get it back when you’ve gotten away from it; you’ve been there before.
“Sometimes hitters get away from what their strengths are — they get into little bad habits — and you have to talk to them about what’s going on with their swing. You have to help them get them back to where it works most efficiently. And everybody’s swing works a little differently. There’s a swing personality in every guy.
“Every hitter is going to go through slumps. A Francisco Lindor is human. He’s a good player, and a good athlete, and a lot of the structure of his swing has been in place since he got here. He knows his swing, and how his mechanics work, so with him it’s usually just general maintenance.”
On jumping fastballs and controlling aggression: “With certain matchups, you want to be ready to ambush early. In other matchups, you want to be more patient. We have a general plan, but we go individually, too. There’s talk in the cage. Guys talk about what the approach is for them in a matchup. But even if your thought is to ambush, you never want to be swinging no matter what. You’re expecting a pitch where you want it, and if it’s not there, you take it. If it is there, get some good leverage and get behind it.
“Aggressive doesn’t mean swinging as hard as you can. It’s attacking balls in the zone. I haven’t really had to tone guys down [in the World Series]. We talked, even before the playoff season started — as we were entering the playoffs — about controlling that adrenaline, and understanding that the tendency is to try to do too much. Especially in emotional situations, with runners in scoring position. What you need to do is focus on the process, not the urgency of ‘I have to get this run in.’ Take the emotion out of it and focus on what you’re trying to execute.”
On looking for breaking balls: “There are some instances where you maybe want to take a pitch away from a guy. At times you may sit on an offspeed pitch. In those cases, you have to be patient until you get that pitch. And when you get it, don’t miss it.
“Most guys are looking for fastballs in an area, but sometimes some of the more veteran hitters, and power hitters, will look for a breaking ball. They know they’re going to get it at some point, so they plan for it. Nap [Mike Napoli] will do that sometimes. When he gets it, he wants to be ready. But even Nap is usually sitting fastball.
“I don’t tell guys to not sit breaking ball, because that’s a personal choice. People ask me if I was a guess hitter when I played. Yeah, I was a guess hitter. I guessed fastball 98% of the time. But there were times, with certain pitchers, that I’d sit on another pitch they kept throwing to me,. That was to try to take it away from them. Especially on the first pitch. I got a lot of curveballs, and it was often a rolling, get-me-over curveball that I could do something with.”
On the World Series DH dilemma: “We went through that in interleague. We had to use one guy, one day, and one guy the next day. That’s Tito’s decision. He’ll come up with something. We’ve dealt with stuff like that all year. How do we fill the void of Michael Brantley being hurt? What about other players when they went down? Guys stepped up. We’ve had a platoon in a lot of places all year, and it’s worked to our advantage.
“We have good analytics people in our front office. Even if there aren’t a lot of matchup decisions, they can project what the best matchup will be. But [playing Mike Napoli and/or Carlos Santana] is probably a better question for Tito than me. He makes out the lineup. He’s going to cover all bases, and find out what the best lineup is to put out there on a given day. Whoever it is, we’re capable of scoring some runs. We have some good hitters on this team.”