A look at a stat where O's minor league hitters made big improvement in 2012

There can be a variety of ways to try and measure the impact that a minor league coach or instructor has in his job. Do individual players get better on his watch? Do some of those players make the major leagues and help the big club?

But there can be no doubt that Orioles minor league batters made a huge gain in one key statistical area in their first season under the watchful eye of minor league hitting coordinator Mike Boulanger, who was hired by Dan Duquette last January.

In walks-to-strikeouts ratio, the players at the six affiliates between the Gulf Coast League Orioles and the Triple-A Norfolk Tides made a nice gain. Last year, the O's ranked 20th among 30 organizations and this year they improved to third overall.

In 2011, those six teams combined to walk 2,274 times with 5,209 strikeouts. In 2012 they walked 2,425 times to 5,063 strikeouts. They improved from .436 to .479 in walk-to-strikeout ratio.

"It's always a mixed bag when you are talking about that many players," Boulanger said, sizing up his first year with the Orioles. "No way are we satisfied, we have to get better. But we improved in every offensive category and that's a plus. Some areas we made striking improvements.

"We wanted our walks-to-strikeouts ratio and walks- and strikeouts-to-plate appearances to improve and they dramatically improved. Our walks-to-strikeouts, which is really the one guys look at, we are ranked third out of 30 organizations. We moved up a lot there.

"The first thing you have to do is be able to control the strike zone. Be able to have pitch recognition. It all starts from there and guys will progress with what you are trying to do swing-wise a lot quicker. That is something they have to buy into and they did."

Boulanger said he was thrilled with how the O's minor league batters were open to his teaching and drills.

"Excellent. Some guys make better adjustments then others and have more ability, but our group of guys, from top to bottom, they bust their tail and work hard to do it right," he said.

"We did an excellent job of setting the table. By that, I mean putting runners in scoring position. Your chances increase when your opportunities increase. But we have to do a better job going forward of driving in more runs. We did a better job of setting the table. We did a good job, but I'd like to see us do a better job with picking up that two-out RBI and things like that."

Boulanger spent most of this past season on the road, going from affiliate to affiliate and spending time with some specific players to work on specific things.

He has ties to both Duquette and Buck Showalter. He was a minor league manager from 2000-02 when Duquettte was the Red Sox's general manager. He was a Triple-A manger and coach for Showalter when Buck managed Texas.

Boulander said the Orioles rated fourth in walks-to-plate appearances and 15th in strikeouts-to-plate appearances. He said the minor leaguers also made some gains in an area he sees as critical, on-base percentage.

"It could have been better," he said. "We got better but we are still a long ways from us being where I'd like to see us be. But we did get better."

This week, Boulanger will head to the Arizona Fall League to check on Jonathan Schoop and the Orioles' other players with the Mesa Solar Sox.

Boulanger expects the minor league hitters to work hard on their craft over the offseason and those players are given a specific plan to follow over the months between now and spring training.

"They are given an offseason hitting program," Boulanger said. "It goes week by week. What drills to do, how many reps, why you do certain things. We have a web site that the hitters log into to get weekly information.

"I tell them, it's like with your own kids, I am not there with them and I am counting on them to be a man of their word. If they take care of this, they'll show up in spring training and be ready to go."

Boulanger realizes that not every player lives in an area where they can get on the field a lot or possibly hit in a batting cage. But he still expects all the players to get their work in.

"If you are really worried about your career, you'll find a place to get this done," he said. "Some guys are limited by where they live. But if you don't have a tee and some balls, that is on you. You have to invest in your career. That is how you make your living and we are counting on them.

"The worst thing for me, after being here one year, is when you show up in spring training you don't want to be trying to fix things. Get your work in now, you want to try and make the highest club you can come spring and not be trying to change your swing then."

Coming soon: Boulanger wanted O's minor league batters to have "productive team plate appearances" this year. I'll explain more about that with him and take a look at which O's hitters did the best in that stat coming up in a few days.

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