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Williams: Oneil Cruz, Jared Triolo, and Active vs Passive Mindsets in Baseball

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After whiffing at a breaking pitch that traveled out of the zone for strike two on Saturday, Oneil Cruz stepped out of the box.

He stared around the stadium and the surrounding environment, took his time adjusting, did not call time, slowly worked his way back into the box, and…

The umpire called strike three on a pitch clock violation, due to Cruz taking too much time.

Cruz walked back to the bench with a look on his face that portrayed some frustration. Greg Brown almost lost his mind on the broadcast over Cruz not being prepared as a pinch hitter. And I just thought about how Oneil Cruz does not have a productive passive mindset for the game of baseball.

*****

There are two mind-modes in which every human being can exist: Active or Passive.

The passive mindset just kind of floats along through life, reacting to the important external stimuli which require a reaction. This mindset is laid back, unconcerned with the randomness of the universe, and just allowing life to happen to the individual.

The active mindset tries to influence life’s randomness. This mindset is charging through life with a direct focus on a specific result. Rather than being directed by the randomness of life, the active mindset aims to direct life’s randomness into a positive outcome.

The game of baseball allows us to see these two mindsets in play simultaneously, with some quantification involved once you know what to qualify.

For example, regardless of where you stand on the field, defense requires a more passive mindset.

You can’t will the ball to come your way, no matter how active your focus is on any play. There are some positions which require more active focus time than others. The left side of the infield, for example, requires quicker and more frequent reactions than a right fielder.

The pitcher is the only player on the field who maintains an active mindset. There is no other player on the field who has control over what happens next. The catcher can direct the pitcher to throw a pitch, but the catcher is ultimately reacting in a passive way to the execution of that pitch, while using the most passive-active thinking energy on the field. The pitcher is strictly active mindset results.

At the plate, the approach is going to require a passive mindset, switching to active in swing mode, as the pitcher is in control of the randomness that a hitter faces. There are ways to reduce the randomness of a pitcher in any given moment. For example, there are hitter counts that allow a batter to go into a more active mode of hunting a certain pitch.

When I watch players, after 16 years of attempting to learn the game from a scouting standpoint, I can get a sense for how they perform in active mode versus passive mode. The best players in the game grade high on either side. If you were going to grade Active Mindsets and Passive Mindsets on a 20-80 scale, the best players are going to grade high in both metrics, and they’ll know when to use both modes.

Can a player improve his mindset on either side? Can a player adjust his reaction times that determine how long he stays in passive versus active?

I’m asking those questions because today’s article breaks down the strengths of Jared Triolo and Oneil Cruz, from a speculation about how their results generate from their mindset tendencies.

Jared Triolo: Plus Passive Mindset

I actually started thinking about the game of baseball in this Active/Passive mindset way while watching Jared Triolo in Altoona during the 2022 season.

While sitting on the first base side of the field, I watched Triolo before every pitch. The third baseman fixed his eyes on the pitcher, waiting for first movement, then shifted to the plate and went into his passive-active reaction mode. There was a lot of active focus from Triolo in the preparation, down to knowing the exact split-second to get ready to react to a potential batted ball. His feet would hit the infield dirt in a set position before any player, every single time.

My belief is that every individual player has X amount of minutes per game where they can sustain the active mode. Let’s say there are 150 pitches per game on defense. If Triolo is in an active mindset for 3-5 seconds per pitch — that time includes pre-pitch focus and setting in a passive-active mode 1-2 seconds before any other fielder — then he’s using about 7-13 minutes in active mode on defense per game. A right fielder who doesn’t need as much pre-pitch focus, and who doesn’t need to get set as quickly, might be in the 2-7 minute range on defense.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Triolo actually spends at least 15 minutes per game combined in active modes on defense, whether that’s an active mindset in preparation, or the frequency in which he shifts early to passive-active mode while reacting to potential batted balls.

I think Triolo spends so much active energy on defense that he doesn’t have enough for offense. I also believe the problem could be that he is too reactive offensively, rather than proactive, at the plate. His average bat speed is the lowest on the team, and despite his size, he’s got one of the worst power results on the team. He’s joined by Ke’Bryan Hayes and Michael A. Taylor this year as slow swingers/low power players — and those two players are known for their Gold Glove defense.

Triolo is one of the best Passive Mindset players that the Pittsburgh Pirates have.

While his offense is sitting at a .205/.282/.283 line, which is among the worst on a horrible offensive team, his advanced metrics point to a good passive approach. He has an above-average walk rate and ranks above-average with a low chase rate. It’s easy to be above-average with walks and avoiding pitches outside the zone when you’re in passive mode with defensive swings. The question is whether he can be active at the plate?

Triolo has been above-average at swinging at pitches in the zone this year. He has an above-average overall swing rate, despite the below-average rate of chase swings. He makes below-average contact in the zone, and the power numbers are poor. Even if he’s showing more of a tendency to be active at the plate, the results haven’t been there.

Improvements have been made. Triolo was below-average swinging in the zone last year, with a below-average overall swing rate. He’s gotten more active at swinging the bat this year, but the increased activity at the plate has yet to lead to positive results.

I think Triolo is the type of hitter who defends his strike zone, and has a good, almost interoceptive idea of where that zone exists in real life. The question I have with him is whether this defensive approach leaves room for positive offensive production?

Oneil Cruz: Plus Active Mindset

I started writing this article on Saturday night when Cruz was called out on strikes, but it’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for a few years.

While Triolo is one of the best passive mindset players the Pirates have, Cruz is absolutely the best active mindset player on the team.

His bat speed and power results when he swings are among the best in the game. After he’s fielded a ball at shortstop, and he switches to the active mode of throwing, he’s got one of the strongest arms.

Friday night’s game featured one of many examples of Cruz looking like he was lacking effort in fielding a ball properly. When this happens, Pirates fans and media hit Cruz with claims of being lazy or not knowing how to play baseball. What I believe they’re seeing is a bad adjustment from a non-strategic passive mode, into his active mode that has a full-force approach to all parts of a variable game.

That’s largely where the frustration with Cruz comes into play. We see the results when he’s in his active mindset. It’s also easy to see that his passive mindset and his reactions are flawed in a game based on quick and accurate reactions. Cruz plays a position that is going to require a more active mindset on the defensive side of the game. When he misses such achievable plays, it makes me wonder if he’s dedicating the same active time on defense as someone like Triolo.

There’s no question that Cruz dedicates more active time than Triolo at the plate.

Cruz’s chase rate is 34.8%, well above the league average of 28.8%. This trend has existed every year that Cruz has been in the majors. He doesn’t make good swing decisions at the plate, leading to lower contact rates. He is actively swinging more often.

But when Cruz hits the ball…

When Cruz swings, it’s typically among the hardest in the game. When he makes contact, he has some of the hardest exit velocities and hit distances in the league. When Oneil Cruz is successful, almost no one in the game can match his production. That even extends to his arm in the field.

The problem with Cruz is his decision making. He makes poor swing decisions at the plate, with perhaps too active of an approach, and often misses achievable plays on defense, with perhaps too passive of an approach.

Active vs Passive Mindsets

The passive mindset is going to be idle until an outside impulse breaks the person’s natural rhythm, forcing the need for an instinctive response.

If a baseball player has a good passive mode, their reactions to outside stimuli are going to be quick. This will show up with consistently good defense, and good swing decisions at the plate. Maintaining this sort of “standby” passive mode is not something that I think can be easily taught.

If a baseball player has a good active mode, it’s displayed in power. Fast swings. Hard hits. Hard throws. The challenge is going from a passive mode to the powerful active mode, with enough time to generate accurate power.

Baseball is a game measured in microseconds.

When I talk about outside stimuli, I’m talking a player seeing the pitch he knows he should swing at, and instantly making the swing. If the pitch is a Paul Skenes 100 MPH fastball, a hitter has 350-400 milliseconds until the ball crosses the plate. Somewhere in that time, the batter has to decide to swing, and execute the swing with the ability to make positive contact on the ball.

When comparing Triolo and Cruz, I think Triolo relies his game plan on his quick internal reaction times, from a better passive approach.

However, Cruz has more force behind his swings, even if the decisions aren’t as good.

Let’s say there are two extremes for the power of an active swing. On one end of the spectrum, you’ve got the Oneil Cruz 78+ MPH fast swings and 122.4 MPH exit velocities.

On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the Asian professional baseball approach of weakly throwing the bat out as a late deflection to a two-strike pitch foul, for strategic negative contact.

At a certain point between those two swings, you’d have the weakest effort swing necessary to generate positive contact.

And every swing from that point to Oneil Cruz decimating the Statcast era year-after-year would be an expression of a more successful active approach.

There is a reason that Cruz is seen as one of the highest ceiling players in the game.

Why We Watch the Best in the Game

The active mindset is what makes star performers.

People don’t pay to watch a two hour baseball game to see how good someone is in their passive mode. We watch any professional sport to catch glimpses of players performing in their active mindset mode, so that we are further inspired when it comes time for us to perform in active mindset mode in our own lives.

Statcast has been quantifying levels of active power. A 75+ MPH swing is when stat-line production begins getting consistently positive. A fast swing leads to +0.6 run value per 100 swings, while slower swings lead to a -3.2 run value per 100 swings.

Cruz has an average bat speed of 78.1 MPH, which ranks second to Giancarlo Stanton’s 80.7 MPH average swing. Stanton swings hard 98.1% of the time. Cruz swings hard 74.6% of the time, which ranks third in the league, just behind Kyle Schwarber.

Statcast exit velocities show that a hit is more likely to be a home run when it has an exit velocity of 95+ MPH.

Cruz has an average exit velocity of 95.1 MPH, which ranks third in the game behind Shohei Ohtani (95.5) and Aaron Judge (97.0). The difference between these three is that Cruz has a lower frequency of hard hits. Judge ranks first in the game, with a 63.5% hard hit rate. Ohtani has a 61.3% hard hit rate. Cruz drops to 13th with a 52.8% hard hit rate. The players in his range have an average exit velocity in the 92-93 MPH range, which is far from Judge and Ohtani.

What makes a good player? Is it the ability to swing the bat faster than most? The ability to hit the ball harder than most? Or, is it the frequency in which a player decides when to have an active swing versus a passive-active swing?

How the Best Perform

Stanton. Ohtani. Judge. Schwarber. Cruz.

The consensus here is power, although the frequencies of production change.

Let’s line these hitters up based on FanGraphs WAR, and see how they compare.

PlayerWARAVGOBPSLGChase%Z-Swing%Swing%O-Contact%Z-Contact%Contact%Bat SpeedFast Swing%Exit VeloHard Hit%
Aaron Judge5.70.3130.4340.70018.2%67.5%42.7%34.8%79.1%79.1%76.973.1%97.063.5%
Shohei Ohtani4.70.3210.4050.64525.9%66.1%46.5%57.6%82.8%75.9%75.556.6%95.561.3%
Average2.20.2280.2970.35927.6%64.3%46.7%52.4%83.5%74.6%71.422.1%88.939.1%
Kyle Schwarber1.80.2500.3730.44720.8%58.0%39.4%48.1%77.1%69.4%77.175.0%93.354.0%
Oneil Cruz1.00.2350.2880.41534.8%60.7%47.4%51.9%77.9%68.1%78.174.6%95.152.8%
Giancarlo Stanton0.70.2460.3020.49231.4%62.9%47.0%47.2%80.0%68.9%80.798.1%94.354.1%
  • Aaron Judge – He ranks among the best in almost every Statcast category. Digging into his swing decisions, he has one of the lowest chase rates, which is good, as he doesn’t do well making contact outside of the zone. He also has an above-average rate inside the zone, but below-average contact. Judge has a below-average swing rate. My guess is that he focuses on defending a set zone at the plate, with a good idea of where that zone ends, and good commitment to eliminating anything outside of the zone. He also reacts with enough time for a consistently fast swing on pitches inside that zone.
  • Shohei Ohtani – He’s got a more measured approach than Judge, with a lower fast swing rate and average bat speed. Ohtani seems like more of a cognizant hitter, perhaps one of the most powerful leadoff hitters in the game, rather than one of the best contact middle of the order guys. He’s below-average for his chase rate, but above-average for his contact rate on chase pitches. He’s above-average for swings in the zone, but below-average for contact in the zone. His swing rate and contact rates are both average. I think that Ohtani’s quick-trigger swing allows him to react later than most, and he also knows when to situationally power up. Judge is the most powerful here, but Ohtani is the best hitter of the group.
  • Kyle Schwarber – This is one of the best seasons in Schwarber’s career, though he’s slightly below-average with his power-heavy approach. He has a below-average chase rate, but also a below-average contact rate on chases. His swing rate inside the zone is below-average, and so is the contact rate inside the zone. His swing rate is the lowest of this group, and you see the divide between above-average and below-average hitters with the contact rate. I think Schwarber is like Judge, defending his zone, with a more narrow idea of where that zone exists in his mind than in real life. This raises questions as to whether he can replicate his fast swings on the edges of the zone, versus closer to the middle of the plate?
  • Oneil Cruz – Cruz has the worst offensive numbers of the group, but gets a WAR boost for playing shortstop. His chase rate is the highest of the group, but he does make average contact on chase swings. His swing rate and contact inside the zone are both below-average. His swing rate is above-average, but his contact rate is the worst of this group. I think Cruz is actually in active mode almost from the moment he steps into the box. Rather than thinking about which pitches to swing at based on where they project to cross the plate, I think he reacts to which pitches he can crush, well before they reach the plate. I’ll get into this more in the section below.
  • Giancarlo Stanton – He ranks above Cruz in every offensive category, with better power production, but Cruz gets the WAR bump due to the positional value at shortstop. Stanton also has a high chase rate, but a below-average contact rate which doesn’t justify the chase. He is below-average on swinging and making contact in the zone. He’s got an above-average swing rate, but a below-average contact rate. Everything I said about Cruz above applies here. I think they’re both the same type of hitter, looking for pitches they can crush, and that’s especially true for Stanton with his 98.1% fast swing rate. Both might be reacting too early.

My belief is that hitters can enter the box with one of two approaches. They can be in the active mode of trying to crush any pitch that looks good. In my “Art of Hitting” column, I called this “Knuckle Up” mode. This keeps the hitter in the active mode while inside the box, reacting to any unexpected pitches with a slower defensive swing.

The other approach is more strategic, working to defend a specific zone with the best swing possible, and relying on reactions and adjustability. This is the passive mode of hitting, working largely with a strong defensive swing. The trick is finding the point to react to the external stimuli of a pitch in the zone with a positive-valued swing. That’s usually a fast swing, but this comes down to timing in microseconds.

The Blink of an Eye

I recommend you check out the article by Sean Quinton in the Seattle Times on the reaction time to a 100 MPH fastball. He breaks down how such a pitch crosses the plate in 400 milliseconds.

A hitter has maybe 200 milliseconds to decide if he wants to swing. That’s half a blink of an eye. This puts the decision at the half-way point between the mound and the plate.

There should be a scale for every hitter along those 400 milliseconds and 60 feet, six inches of time and space. There should be a point between the plate and the mound where a hitter can detect a pitch with enough time to unleash a hard and accurate swing. That point would be different for every hitter.

Some hitters might need 200 milliseconds to get that swing off. Some hitters might only need 100 milliseconds to get off a fast and accurate swing, allowing them an extra 100 milliseconds for pitches to start to exit the pitcher’s launch tunnel and break into their specific direction.

I think this is what Ohtani does.

My belief, especially after watching Ohtani take on Paul Skenes, is that Ohtani works in passive mode at the plate. He defends his zone with a slower swing from late reactions, and he almost expands his zone to attack pitches that are just outside of the actual strike zone. Skenes had the right approach in attacking him with three straight fastballs out of the gate, with Ohtani’s defensive mode failing to catch up to the velocity on the edges where he’s prone to swing.

Ohtani took a timeout in the second at-bat against Skenes, and seemed more strategic in his active thinking between each pitch. When Skenes threw the 100 MPH, 3-2 fastball, Ohtani unleashed his trigger-point swing to launch a homer to center field. He earned the home run in that battle.

Jared Triolo is in this same passive mode from my view. I believe he relies on quick reaction times from a defensive swing that allows him to react to pitches a bit later, after they’ve revealed themselves. This is the same mindset that allows Triolo to be such a great reactive defender on the left side of the infield, with accurate active actions following the reactive play. He might not have the powerful arm of Cruz on defense, but he’s accurate in his movements.

The massive difference between Triolo and Ohtani is the swing speed. Triolo has a below-average swing speed and only swings the bat fast 8.4% of the time. I think Triolo is relying too much on reaction at the plate, to the point that he isn’t leaving enough time to power up on pitches with a faster swing that can make harder contact.

In other words, let’s say Triolo is reacting at the 300 millisecond mark, around 45 feet and 4.5 inches. If that’s the case, then he could probably generate more power by starting his swing at the 200/30.3 mark. This would lead to a decline in his walk rate, and an increase in chase, as it would be a bit more difficult to project the late movement or whether the ball will cross the plate when reacting further out. But he would be able to generate more force behind the swing.

By comparison, I think Cruz reacts too early. He swings hard often, and he makes hard contact. I also think Cruz is in active mode while he’s in the box, while switching to passive mode to let his mind relax between pitches. The active mode in the box leads to him committing to swing much earlier than Triolo, with a more offensive swing than a defensive swing.

Let’s say Cruz is reacting at the 100 millisecond/15 foot, 1.5 inch mark. A later reaction would allow him to detect movement on pitches more accurately, though it would reduce his bat speed frequency and fast swing rate by incorporating more defensive swings. This requires being in passive mode longer, and relying less on a constant active mode. Cruz wouldn’t have the ability to swing hard at every pitch.

On Saturday night, Cruz could have called time when he stepped out of the box. He didn’t, but still took time to collect himself. He looked around the stadium. Looked up. Looked down. He wasn’t looking at the pitcher who just fooled him for the second time with a curveball that broke past his bat to the bottom of the zone. He seemed to be backing away from his strategic mind for a few too many seconds, taking a break in passive mode.

The umpire penalized his delay with strike three.

By comparison, on Sunday, Cruz dialed it in on a 90.3 MPH first-pitch cutter that ended up down the middle. Cruz crushed the pitch over 450 feet with a 117.3 MPH exit velocity for a two-run homer. He was actively aggressive against a pitch clearly in his zone, with not as much movement, and it resulted in one of the biggest hits in baseball this year.

Not every pitcher is going to throw Cruz a minimally moving fastball down the middle. Not every fastball will be one that Cruz can crush with a fast, forceful swing. He’s currently a below-average hitter overall, while being a poor defender at shortstop. He shows flashes of his active-mindset ability allowing him to sometimes be one of the most dangerous hitters in the game. But his passive mindset isn’t as accurate.

The question is whether any player can change in this way, while still being productive?

We can imagine Cruz waiting to react an extra 100 milliseconds, or Triolo reacting 100 milliseconds earlier, and the adjustments leading to what the player is missing. How does a human mind make such a micro-adjustment on a consistent basis?

Triolo needs to be more powerful at the plate, with a quicker switch to active mode, and more time for a fast and forceful swing.

Cruz needs to dial it back a bit, allowing the ball to travel deeper for a more accurate projection of where it will end up before he commits, even if that limits him to a defensive swing more often.

These adjustments in theory would push each player close to Judge and Ohtani.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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