Hello, Panic Button?

Pronk's Stance

So many people have been hopping on the “What the hell, Travis Hafner?” bandwagon over the past two weeks, but I’ve been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for the most part because slumps happen to even the best hitters from time to time, and in the past 3 years we’ve seen Hafner hit the skids every once in awhile only to come storming back and start mashing the ball again.

Unfortunately things seem to be nearing critical mass here in 2008.

As JTBI referenced in his look at last night’s game, Hafner found himself in an extremely low-pressure/high-yield situation (or as I like to call it, an at bat where Alex Rodriguez always hits a home run) and still found a way to turn himself into a regular Jim Rice with the bases loaded. It was really the first time I thought to myself, “OK, this is getting a bit ridiculous.”

Slumps don’t usually last until mid-May (unless you count Victor Martinez, circa 2006) but there seems to be no end in sight for Pronk. At least not yet.

I think the most mystifying thing about this slump is that a lot of people are able to look at it and quickly diagnose that the problem is likely rooted in a few minor hiccups in his stance and swing. I was watching Baseball Tonight several nights ago when someone–I wanna say John Kruk or Steve Philips–pointed out the fact that Hafner’s was holding his left elbow a few inches too low, which was starting his bat at a funny angle. This change in the bat’s angle created a downward plane in Hafner’s swing, which simultaneously reduced the power of any contact he would make and reduced his ability to hit the outside pitch. They showed his current stance/swing side-by-side with his stance/swing from 2005 and the difference was as clear as day.

Upon seeing this comparison, I was immediately struck by two thoughts:

  1. Was the elbow drop an intentional thing by Hafner? If so, why? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  2. If Baseball Tonight is able to see this, why can’t anyone on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario?

The first one I don’t think I’ll ever be able to find out, but the second is most troubling for any number of reasons. The foremost of these concerns is whether or not Derek Shelton has noticed this change in Hafner’s mechanics. If he has and isn’t working to change it… yikes. I don’t want to invoke the 2005 season and what happened to Eddie Murray when the Indians bats were asleep for a month and a half… but… you can’t dismiss the possibility here of some of this coming back on Shelton in one way or another, especially since Hafner is merely the most prominent of many Indian batters struggling through the first month of play.

The other thing that troubles me is that Hafner ought to be able to see this himself; Pronk is notorious for obsessively consuming batting video, even heading down the tunnel to view previous in-game at bats to try and have an edge in his next plate appearance. You would think he’d be looking at the monitors and thinking “Oh damn, look at that elbow!” But he’s not.

I sincerely hope this is a mere oversight and not a sign of a general offensive malaise on the part of the Tribe. I really would hate to see Derek Shelton take the fall for all of this as I think he’s been fantastic since he replaced Murray in ’05, but he’s got to light a fire under these guys and start really micro-managing his hitters, even more than usual.

If he can pull off a turnaround in the next 2-3 weeks, the Tribe will be a monster in what’s turning into a very weak A.L. Central. If not… hey, 2 ½ months till training camp opens!

UPDATE: The prolific Michael Beckwith at WFNY has heard some other theories on why Hafner’s swing is jacked up.

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