“I’m going to kick that football so hard, Lucy won’t believe it.” | Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
One of the most difficult thing to do in all of sports is for a big league batter to hit a baseball. Protecting a rectangular zone trying to hit a round ball squarely with an oblong stick would stump even Pythagoras. That being said, some hitters make it even harder than it has to be. All they have to do is to listen to some guy on the internet and their ills shall be cured.
Here are some guiding principles to maximizing success as a big league hitter, principles I believe should be commonplace amongst hitting coaches and instructors up and down the major and minor leagues…
Hit With “Pitch Directionality” In Mind
If you are a batter you should not have a pre-conceived notion as to where you are going to hit the ball. Trying to yank everything in the RF seats is the equivalent of a plumber using a wrench to tighten a faucet and then figuring a wrench must be ok to use to unclog the toilet because, well, actually all he brought was a wrench.
It’s not as simple as “pull inside pitches, take outside pitches the other way” or “pull off speed pitches, poke fastballs late to the off field”. The art of good hitting lies in the willingness to let the movement of the pitch determine whether you look to pull a pitch or “go oppo”.
A fastball that is tailing away is a hard pitch to pull with success, but becomes a pitch you can serve hard the other way. Mistake pitches — hanging sliders, flat changeups — are great pitches to pull, whereas “RH on RH” sliders or cutters are headed to RF and right-center waiting for a bat to send them there with authority.
Not every hitter is alike and so some guys should be more pull hitters, others more “line to line” or “alley to alley”. But all hitters benefit from recognizing that a pitch arrives already poised to be hit to one part of the field or another, and the key clue is often found in the direction that pitch is moving as it arrives to the plate.
Note that Sean Murphy is a poster boy for this argument. On many pitches he sees, when he tries to pull them he hits bouncers to 3B and SS but when he takes the same pitch where it’s going he hits a lot of doubles and HRs to right-center.
Pulling Is Overrated, All Fields Hitting Underrated
This is true for myriad reasons, including the one outlined above and the fact that defenses are increasingly stacking themselves to create fewer holes to the pull side, more to the off field.
To me, the most compelling argument for more of an all-field approach is that it simply makes hitters harder to pitch to, harder to get out, while in contrast “dead pull hitters” (on the current team, Seth Brown is a good example) have few answers to pitches like sinkers away — usually they wind up having to start their swings early and become more vulnerable to offspeed pitches. Plus they are lunging and hooking pitches rather than taking the balanced and level swing required to knock the same pitch hard the other way.
Furthermore, once a hitter shows he can handle pitches away he has taken that weapon away from the pitcher. The pitcher has to pitch more inside, and now you are seeing more “pullable pitches”. So if pulling the ball is what you want to do, your best bet is to take the hardest pitches to pull away from the pitcher. And you do that by not trying to pull those pitches like the pitcher is trying to get you to do. Sheldon Neuse has been a good example of this, relentless finding the right side hole until pitchers and defenses adjusted — and now he is pulling more balls with authority and finding more holes on the left side of the field.
The goal of hitting is to make it as hard as possible for the pitcher to get you out. You want as few holes in your swing and as many “hot zones” as possible. You also want as little defense in the way of the balls you do hit. All of this becomes easier to do with a good strategy for all types of pitches in all locations of the strike zone. Pull hitters, while sometimes excellent overall, are just easier to pitch to, and easier to defend, than guys who use the whole field.
Know What You’re Looking For, Have A Plan
In other words, be Jed Lowrie and not Chad Pinder. Pinder is a very talented hitter whose approach seems to be, “Swing hard at stuff.” He appears to have an eager protogé in Murphy. Leading off an inning down by 3? Swing hard at stuff! Runner at 2B with 0 outs? Swing hard at stuff! Bases loaded against a wild pitcher? Swing hard at stuff!
If the situation calls for you to hit to the right side, you should be looking for a pitch away that you can handle. If the situation calls for a sac fly (or better, obviously), you should be looking for a pitch that is up on which you can extend your arms.
On the first pitch, you should generally be looking for a mistake — a pitch that is centered, a hanger, a flat cutter — because you are swinging only if you see a pitch you think is likely the best one to hit you will see in the at bat.
With less than 2 strikes, it’s ok to guess location or pitch type as it’s often necessary given the difficulty of covering the entire strike zone and preparing concurrently for every pitch type. But with 2 strikes it’s usually wiser to shorten your swing, see pitches longer, and focus more on simply swinging at strikes while not chasing balls.
One way or another, whatever type of hitter you are, you should have a plan that matches the situation and matches your skill set.
OK, that’s it for now. Nothing here around mechanics, stance or swing path, because I know when I’m in over my head and that is just not my area of expertise. But approach? Philosophy? On a team like the 2022 A’s, in which the level of raw talent and experience is low, what I have outlined are principles I believe can take any group of hitters and better leverage the ability they bring to the table.
I welcome your thoughts.