“What are you looking for?” It’s a question I commonly ask the hitters I work with prior to an at-bat. The answers to that question never cease to amaze me. I get things like “a strike” or “something to drive” or “something I can hit”. I even had a player tell me “I’m looking at the pitcher” which of course left me shaking my head. At the surface these answers seem sufficient. They seem like the hitter has a definite plan of attack at the plate. Yet when pressed to further define what their approach is or what “something to drive” actually means they can’t give me a definitive answer. Essentially, they are going up to the plate with no idea of what pitch and or location they want or expect to hit. Without a definitive plan, a concrete idea of what pitches a hitter is going to execute on they are setting themselves up to fail.
Why is a hitter’s approach so important?
There’s no question that hitting a baseball is statistically the most difficult thing to do in sports. As hitters we have no idea what pitch is coming, where, and how fast. In addition we only have fractions of seconds to determine pitch type, pitch speed, pitch location, and whether or not we’re going to swing. With the average fastball going from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s glove in less that 1/2 a second it’s a lot for our brain to process in a short amount of time. When you also consider that contact point varies with pitch location (balls inside are struck farther out in front than balls away giving a hitter even less time to make a decision) you start to get some level of appreciation for just how difficult it is.
When we go up to the plate without a defined approach we’re forcing our brain to process a lot of information in a very short amount of time. In doing so, hitters set themselves up to swing at pitches they don’t want and take pitches that they do want. If you as a hitter have ever had the experience of chasing a pitch in the dirt and/or taking a pitch down the middle and then scratching your head as to why you would do such a thing then you probably have some general sense of what I’m talking about.
Imagine for a second that you’re standing on the corner of a busy street and I instruct you to watch the cars for 10 minutes. At the end of that time I ask you how many red cars you saw? You would have no idea. When I didn’t prime your brain as to what to look for you didn’t have the ability to focus in on any one thing. As a result you saw a lot of cars but you weren’t focused on any one particular thing. Now imagine that I ask you to go back to that busy street corner and for the next 10 minutes look for and keep track of how many red cars you see. By simply defining what you’re looking for your brain not only recognizes the red cars sooner and faster but it also disregards everything that isn’t a red car without you having to consciously eliminate it. Since you took the time to define what you were looking for your brain was able to operate more efficiently allowing you to recognize what you did and didn’t want earlier. The same idea applies to hitting. Often hitters go up to the plate with just a general idea of what pitches they’re trying to hit. The don’t take to the time to define exactly what pitches they are looking to attack. As a result it takes their brain a split second longer to recognize pitch type and location and as a result they make the decision to swing or not to swing a split second too late which impacts pitch selection and timing.
If a hitter defines what location and possibly what pitch they are looking for their brain is going to operate the same way as the above example. It will recognize the pitches that it’s been instructed to look for sooner and disregard pitches it’s not looking for sooner. The result of which is a hitter who swings at better pitches, has better timing, and puts themselves in a better position to be successful pitch to pitch which translates into more hard hit balls.
What dictates a hitter’s approach?
There are multiple factors that determine what a hitter’s approach should be in a given situation. The situation (what you’re trying to accomplish ie: moving a runner over ), the hitter’s strengths, the pitcher’s ability to execute certain pitches and locations, the pattern as to how the opponent consistently attacks that hitter, etc. Most hitters however, when they do have an approach, go up to the plate focused in on just their strengths or what pitches they’d like to hit. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a hitter tell me he’s looking “middle in” and yet the pitcher hasn’t thrown a ball inside the entire day. For this reason it’s important to be watching the game. Look at what pitches and locations the pitcher is able to consistently execute. Where does he like to throw his fastball? What counts does he like to throw his breaking ball? Can he consistently execute his breaking ball or does he bounce it a lot? The answers to these questions help a hitter begin to understand what pitches they might see in a given at-bat. So while “middle in” might be the preferred location for that particular hitter it doesn’t make much sense to look in that location if it’s not a location the pitcher can command or the pitcher is going to throw to .
The situation can also play a major role into what a hitter’s approach might be. If you’ve interacted with me before or have read any of my other posts then you know that I’m not a big fan of hitter’s trying to manipulate the baseball. I don’t like hitter’s trying to “create” results but rather I like them to have a good understanding of what results they’d like to achieve in a given AB and then look to execute a good swing on pitches that will allow them to accomplish that goal. So if we use the runner on second and nobody out situation as an example a right handed hitter might have the goal of driving a ball to the right side of the field. Instead of going up to the plate with a result based mindset and ultimately decreasing the likelihood of success the hitter can focus on getting a pitch on the middle to outer third of the plate (the best location to drive a ball to the opposite field) and executing their best swing on it. Having this approach is more process oriented and therefore increases the likelihood of success.
How does a hitter begin to formulate their approach?
It’s important when starting out to not get too specific. Too often hitter’s will not only look for pitch location but they’ll also eliminate pitch types based on pitches they desire to hit. For example, a hitter might only look for a fastball inside because they feel like that’s the pitch they can really drive. Unfortunately, the count might be such that the likelihood of a fastball being thrown is very low. Likewise, the pitcher might not command the inner half of the plate and therefore the hitter is left taking strikes that they would otherwise hit. What I recommend is starting with defining the specific location you are looking for and then attacking pitches in that particular location. Think of dividing the plate into thirds. Until a hitter gets to two strikes they should be focused on 2/3 of the plate based on the locations the pitcher is most consistently attacking. In high school and college this typically means the middle to outer third of the plate. With this in mind a hitter would set their approach to look for pitches on the middle to outer third while taking pitches on the inner third until they get to two strikes. Until a hitter gains a better understanding of what pitch types can be eliminated simply eliminating 1/3 of the plate increases the likelihood of the hitter hitting the ball hard and having a desirable outcome.
Does this mean a hitter will take more pitches?
Possibly, however the pitches that the hitter does swing at have an increased probability of being put in play hard. Therefore the hitter will experience less swing and misses, less foul balls, less chases outside the strike zone, and less weak contact resulting in outs. Often, hitters swing at pitches that are “strikes” and make weak contact because they were trying to cover too large of an area. This results in the brain having too much to process in a short amount on time which causes the hitter to make slower decisions in terms of whether to swing or not to swing. Slower decision making results in the hitter missing pitches, fouling pitches off, chasing pitches outside the zone, or making contact in a poor position at the point of contact creating outs. By being more definitive about what pitch locations the hitter intends to swing at increases the likelihood of positive outcomes pitch to pitch even though the hitter might take more “strikes”.
What if the pitcher throws pitches in areas a hitter isn’t looking?
This can happen and is part of the learning process. Let’s consider the example of a hitter looking for a pitch middle away. If the hitter fully commits to that approach they will be taking pitches on the inner third of the plate until they get to two strikes. For the sake of argument let’s say the pitcher attacks the hitter in this scenario with two consecutive fastballs on the inner third for strikes. The pitcher is now faced with a decision to make. Do they go back to the outer third (which is where the hitter is looking) or do they throw a third consecutive pitch on the inner third? Remember, pitch selection is all about our brain’s pattern recognition abilities. If that pitcher goes to the outer third where the hitter is looking they are going to recognize it early and be able to attack the pitch. However, if that pitcher decides to throw another pitch on the inner third that hitter has already seen two in a row and likewise will recognize it early and be able to make the decision to swing earlier than they would have earlier in the count. This increases the chance of success even though this is a pitch outside the hitter’s approach.
What typically happens however is the hitter is afraid to give up that pitch earlier in the count and as such swings, gets jammed, and gets out before they’ve had the chance to get a pitch inside their approach. The other thing that happens is the mental game between a hitter and a pitcher. The hitter is looking for a pitch on the middle to outer third, the pitcher throws a pitch on the inner third which causes the hitter to question his approach. The hitter begins to fear that their approach is wrong and then the very next pitch is a pitch inside their approach and instead of waiting for and expecting that pitch to be there they end up taking it because they are concerned about the previous pitch. In essence they didn’t fully commit to their approach.
For sake of argument let’s say the pitcher throws three consecutive pitches on the inner third or outside the hitter’s approach and the hitter records an out. Frustrating for sure, however what has the hitter learned? The pitcher has just told the hitter what to expect the next AB. A smart hitter would simply adjust his approach to reflect the pitches they are likely to receive. In this case that shift would be to look for pitches middle in. Hitting is hard. The likelihood of recording an out is greater than the likelihood of recording a hit. Trying to cover the plate corner to corner is going to result in more outs made. If a hitter focuses on their approach and narrows their area of attention they will increase the likelihood of positive results on pitches in that area. If that hitter chooses an approach that doesn’t reflect the pitches they see in a particular AB they simply adjust that approach the next time up.
What is the mental impact?
The results we produce as hitters are directly linked to two things: 1) the quality of pitch we swing at and 2) the quality of swing we execute. The uncertainty that is inherent in hitting diminishes our ability to do both of those things. The fact that we don’t know what pitch is coming and where causes hitters stress that inhibits their ability to accurately process what pitches they are seeing and impedes fine motor skill function causing proper swing execution to be inconsistent. By defining what locations a hitter intends to attack and committing to that approach the hitters regains that sense of certainty. All of a sudden the pitcher isn’t the one in complete control because it’s the hitter who decides what pitches they swing at. By regaining this sense of certainty the hitter begins to feel more relaxed, more confident and as a by product their pitch recognition increases and their ability to consistently execute their “A” swing increases which creates better and more consistent results.
While this is certainly an advanced concept in hitting I believe that every hitter should begin to experiment with approach development as soon as they reach high school age. The better command a hitter has over their approach the tougher out they will be and the better results they will produce. There will be some bumps in the road however, if a hitter can take the long view in regards to approach development and be willing to give up a few battles to the win the war they will come out a more dangerous hitter on the other end.