By John Bauernfeind / Indianapolis Indians
The International League’s base hits leader for two of the last three seasons has made an adjustment to his swing. Here are his results thus far:
With runners on first and second in the first inning of the Indians’ June 1 game against Scranton Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, Matt Hague stepped into the batters box.
Hague was looking for a pitch inside, and he got it. Scranton’s starting pitcher, Bruce Billings, threw a two-seam fastball in, meeting Hague’s bat and landing over the fence in left field. The homer gave the two-time Tribe Most Valuable Player Hague his seventh longball of the season and first at Victory Field since Aug. 22, 2012.
“It showed up in the zone I was looking – fastball in – and threw the barrel to it,” Hague said.
Hague’s blast Sunday was his seventh of the season. In the series finale against Scranton the following evening, Hague would hit another home run, his eighth. Three days later, dinger nine, more than his entire home run total from all of last year.
This tear was a stark contrast to earlier this season, where Hague wasn’t seeing as much playing time as he had in years past.
Hague – in his fourth campaign with the Indians – is the longest tenured member of the Indians since the team moved to Victory Field in 1996. He played in 142 games last season alone, batting .285 while amassing a league-leading 153 hits with eight homers and 37 doubles. This season, however, Hague made a start in the Tribe’s home opener, before seeing his playing time begin to taper off.
One season removed from appearing in 142 of 144 games, Hague found himself held out of one – sometimes two – consecutive games before seeing the field again.
That’s old news as the season turns to June, though. Hague has experienced a resurgence both in terms of playing time and production at the plate. As a near-everyday player for the first-place Indians, he has already exceeded last season’s home run totals after his 49th game of 2014. The power uptick, according to Hague, stems from the beginning of the season, where a “tweak” to his swing has led to more power and consistency.
“I think just tweaking [mechanics] here and there,” Hague said of his new-found power stroke. “I was actually going to start off with just playing around with [his swing], and then I took a round of batting practice and it felt really good. That’s kind of where it started.”
As Hague tells it, his 3-for-9 effort in a series with Toledo doubled his average from .111 to .222, and featured a smashed triple for his lone three-bagger on the year. Hague says that’s where he and Indians hitting coach Mike Pagliarulo first started experimenting with his batting stance.
“I think just a lot of self-analysis, a lot of working with Pags, as far as getting involved with my legs and my hips more,” Hague says. “This year, so far it’s paid off…It’s been a lot of work and I’m just trying to be as consistent as I can.”
Hague explains that the tweak he and Pagliarulo made involved widening his stance at the plate. As he loads his body in preparation for a pitch, he says he focuses on keeping and holding his head, and thus momentum, on his back leg. Hague says that by doing so, it allows his hands to “work out more,” adding more momentum while creating more power from his torso and lower body.
For Hague, it’s not the first swing change of his career, as the Tribe’s MVP admits he has undergone various overhauls to his swing. But this year’s adjustment isn’t a swing “change.” Only a tweak.
“I don’t really like saying I changed my swing,” Hague says. “But this new tweak definitely makes my legs more tired, which is obviously a good thing because that means it’s actually working my legs.”
The results have shown. Included with his team-leading homer total, the most since his MLB debut season in 2011, Hague’s slugging percentage is also up last year’s .407 to this season’s .468 mark. Hague has begun turning those gap-shot, one- or two-base hits from 2013 into 2014 round trippers. Entering June 6, he’s hit nine homers to his five doubles.
Although he adjusted his stance two weeks into the season during that Toledo series in April, Hague says he feels like the tweak is already ingrained in his swing.
“I feel like it was a long time ago, (when really) it was only like a month and a half ago,” he said.
Then again, his amount of action on the field wasn’t quite the same a month and a half ago as it is today. Neither was his emphasis on a thorough consistency in the box.
“When you get consistent at-bats, it’s easier to get in a groove than when you’re not (playing),” Hague says. “I don’t think, personally, I was doing a very good job of when I wasn’t playing of getting my work in, as far as trying to get consistent with certain things…Playing every day these last couple weeks has helped me out a lot.”
Hague again stressed the key notion of a minor tweak. A simple adjustment to add to an already refined swing, which helped Hague reach base in a team-high 25 consecutive games – two more than his longest streak of a standout 2013 campaign.
“I think the biggest thing in the box is just as long as you feel good and you feel comfortable, then go with [your swing],” Hague said. “If the adjustment didn’t feel comfortable, I wouldn’t do it. But it felt good and I have just kind of played with it from there.”