Modesto, California —— The California League is supposed to be the place where hitters like Braden Bishop go to get right.
Nothing’s guaranteed in minor league baseball, but if you’re a hitter farmed out to High-A ball on the west coast for a month, or a year, you’re probably going to have a good time. Especially in the pre-contraction Cal League, the 2016 version with ten affiliates including High Desert (short porches, relentless winds blowing out), Lancaster (same, same), Bakersfield (354 feet to center field!), Modesto (390-plus feet to the gaps; hit it there and run for days), and even Visalia and Rancho Cucamonga that can play smaller than they appear. A dry climate leaves pitchers struggling to find pitch grips and work out the feel of breaking balls, and the sum total is a wild west built for hitters, to say the least.
So when Braden Bishop showed up in Bakersfield in the middle of last summer as one of the Seattle Mariners’ top prospects after the club made him their third-round draft pick the year before out of a major college program at the University of Washington, there was little doubt he’d run right through the Cal League’s second half and position himself for a quick turnaround at Double-A to begin 2017, right? Not quite.
In 41 games with the Bakersfield Blaze, split up by a late-season injury, Bishop slashed just .247/.300/.319/.619 with two home runs in 166 at-bats. A thin speedster who can thrive at the top of the order, Bishop is far from a plus raw power guy, and yet his entire approach was off last summer: he only stole two bases over the last two months, and he whiffed 39 times in those 41 games against only 11 walks. Something wasn’t right.
Add in his marginally better totals from Low-A Clinton, where he began the year, and he wasn’t a huge offensive threat (.290/.363/.331/.694). So Braden Bishop entered the offseason after 2016 taking too many defensive two-strike swings, spending too much time off-balance and lunging at the ball, and hitting far too many balls straight down into the ground.
It was time for something to change.
“The biggest thing was hitting with Jake Lamb this past offseason,” Bishop told Baseball Census before a recent Modesto Nuts game. “I saw him go from a higher set to a lower set [with his hands] and have success with it. Obviously, I’m not the same power guy as Jake Lamb. His job is to sit in the middle of the order and drive in runs, and I’m a top of the order guy. But I really thought about how I could use the same [hand] set for a different purpose.”
This year, Bishop has lowered his hands from the start of his swing pretty much all the way through contact with the pitch. It’s has the look of an old-school batting stance (see our video comparison below), but it’s getting him in position to do something he wasn’t doing much last year: hitting the ball in the air with authority.
And no, that doesn’t (necessarily) mean he’s trying to hit home runs.
“The low set allows me to start low and finish a little bit higher, rather than starting high and then inevitably finishing low,” he reasoned. “My bat can stay in the zone so much longer like that. It gives me a little better chance to hit something moving down, and I think this is a more natural place for me to be. It’s had its ups and downs, but I’ve liked it the process of developing it every day so far.”
Saying his new swing path has had its “ups and downs” is Braden Bishop being a little too humble, maybe. Yes, it’s early in the season, and entering Saturday night the Seattle Mariners’ outfielder had just 158 at-bats over 39 games, but he’s already slashing .310/.405/.424/.829. That’s a 210-point OPS increase over comparable at-bats (166) last year in Bakersfield. More importantly, everything about his approach is better, both in the eye test and the peripherals: only 26 strikeouts, and already 23 walks; nine stolen bases already without being caught; and he’s slugged 13 doubles (he hit 11 doubles all last year across more than twice the at-bats).
Simply put, Braden Bishop looks like a completely different player, and lowering his hands pre-swing has proven to finally be getting him in position to hit the ball in the air. But wait — isn’t he a skinny leadoff hitter with plus speed and relatively little power to speak of?
Why should he be hitting the ball “in the air”?
“A lot gets lost in translation with the whole ‘hit the ball in the air’ thing,” Bishop offered, acknowledging most people’s first perception is of players just trying to hit home runs. “When some people hear ‘the air,’ they think ‘lazy fly balls.’ And I get it, those are in ‘the air,’ but to me, ‘the air’ means driving it over an infielder’s head with enough velocity so that an outfielder can’t run underneath it. Having that in my mind has helped me to hit hard line drives. Those are in the air, right? I don’t want to hit ground balls.”
This is an important distinction to note in the coming fly-ball revolution. Yes, power hitters—the Josh Donaldson types, who everybody rightfully focuses on—have the tools to hit better, deeper fly balls and find consistent over-the-fence success. Bishop might get some of those along the way, too, but he’ll likely never be a Donaldson-type player.
Even so why shouldn’t the Seattle Mariners prospect take a similar approach to hitting every ball with authority?
“My margin for error is a lot greater when I’m trying to drive something in the air,” he said. “Obviously, I’m still going to miss on the ground sometimes, but I think I have a lot better chance to succeed over a long period of time when I’m trying to drive the ball with authority in the air. I’ve seen so many hitters change careers based off trying to hit the ball with authority in the air.”
“Even a guy like Josh Donaldson,” he continued. “He didn’t turn into that in one day. He had a long process to get to this point, and now he’s one of the best hitters in the big leagues because he played out the process. A lot of guys go, ‘oh, well, I want to be him right now,’ and it just doesn’t work that way. If I keep buying into this process, it will hopefully pay off [with home runs], but for now, doubles will work, and mistakes will be home runs.”
He paused, and shook his head.
“But I’m not going to be that guy who gives myself up just trying to hit the ball into the ground.”
Braden Bishop has been that guy before, and it didn’t work.
There’s a broader counter-trend here to acknowledge. More and more pitchers are throwing harder and harder than ever before. Everybody has an 85 mph slider to go along with a 95 mph fastball, it seems, and the ones that don’t have the slider instead use an 88 mph splitter. Everything breaks, and sinks, and dives, and falls, and cuts, and runs and does everything short of completely stopping on the way to the plate.
Hitters are striking out more than the game has ever seen, and while talking heads debate the causes—the strike zone, the mound, the ball—organizations keep stocking up more and more pitchers who throw harder and harder still. To put it bluntly, there are Cal League relief arms you’ve never heard of that touch 97, 98, and 99 mph, and it only gets tougher as guys like Braden Bishop keep moving up.
Taking that all into account, knowing how hitters are going to inevitably suffer a large portion of strikeouts simply because it’s getting harder and harder to hit in the first place, why should they also be expected to give themselves up with ground ball contact right to the slickest defensive infielders in the world?
“I don’t want to hit the ball on the ground,” Bishop said. “For one, the pitcher is trying to get me to do that. The ball is coming on a downward plane. And the pitches he’s throwing, breaking balls and cutters and all these things, they are changing planes. Don’t I want my plane to match that plane? If I’m going down [in my swing], I’m an easy out. You have these guys who are unbelievable infielders already down here in the minor leagues, let alone the big leagues. Why would I want to make their job easier?”
“It’s a weird dynamic because you see this big pitching craze right now,” he continued. “Everybody wants to throw harder. Everybody wants to gain velocity. Why can’t hitters do the same thing? Why can’t we practice hitting with more power? Why can’t we practice hitting more home runs? Home runs just don’t happen. You train for them.”
And so a revolution is upon us, and Braden Bishop is one of many hitters on the frontlines dropping their hands, flattening their bat planes, changing their approaches, all with one goal: hit something hard in the air. And while that revolution has been around guys like this Seattle Mariners prospect for some time, it’s starting to trickle down to the high schools and below. No, that doesn’t mean asking every tee-ball kid to swing for the fences — but hitting a line drive or two over the shortstop’s head wouldn’t hurt.
“Obviously, for the broader audience, you don’t want to teach a 12-year-old who weighs 100 pounds to hit home runs on a field that is 393 feet to the gap,” Bishop admitted, laughing about the misconceptions that come up about hitting the ball in the air. “But why can’t we teach him to hit the ball with authority? Why can’t we teach him to hit the ball hard over the infielders’ heads? When he grows, that’ll work in his favor because he’s been taught the athletic movements, and his chance to succeed becomes so much greater because he’s not just a robot.”
So far, this has proven to be a career-changer for Braden Bishop.
He has a long way to go, of course, but early returns are telling his story better than any infield single or base-hit bunt could ever do.
To read our feature on Seattle Mariners outfielder Braden Bishop, and his mom’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, please click here. To visit Braden Bishop’s player profile page, please click here. For our full scouting report on Seattle Mariners outfielder Braden Bishop, please click here.
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