The Mental Game of Hitting: The Role of Pitcher Classification on In-Game Adjustments

As I touched upon back on April 9th, Giants hitters have struggled mightily to make in-game adjustments, a trend that continued today in their loss to the Dodgers. The Giants scored only 1 run in 10 innings, and their lack of production spoiled another strong pitching performance, this time from Matt Moore.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, the Giants are hitting only .196 the 1st full time around the order with a .244 on base percentage, and a .222 with a .267 on base percentage the 2nd full time around the order. It isn’t until the 3rd full time around the order, that the Giants do anything impactful, as their average raises to .288 with a .352 on base percentage. This lack of production early in games is particularly disturbing when considering that the Giants are 6-70 when trailing after 6 innings going back to 2016. So not only are the Giants struggling to score runs early, they fail to recover when playing from behind – not a good combination!

Rather than pick apart the Giants’ inability to execute offensively, I thought it best to expand on what I believe is the main culprit for their struggles – the inability to make in-game adjustments. Trying to cover all that goes into a hitter’s adjustments without completely confusing or overwhelming people will be difficult, so instead, I will break this analysis into 2 parts. The first part, which I will cover below, will focus on the importance of pitcher categorization and pitches types, and Part 2 will center on the offensive approaches and in-game adjustments needed to combat these pitchers and pitches.

At the surface, it’s difficult to notice the subtle in-game adjustments hitters try to implement over 9 innings, but the reality is that players and teams are constantly adjusting and adapting to personnel, situational strategy, and statistical trends. The ones who are able to adapt and execute those adjustments more effectively and consistently, are the ones who win ballgames.

As a hitter, one of the most critical aspects to approaching a pitcher is being able to categorize the pitcher’s arsenal so you can form a plan that puts you in the best position to have a productive at-bat.

Typically, pitchers fall into 5 categories…

  1. Power Arm
  2. Sinker (aka 2-Seam Fastball)/Slider Guy
  3. Cutter Guy
  4. Mix Guy
  5. Thumber

Power arms tend to be pitchers who possess elite fastball velocity and prefer to overpower hitters with a max-effort style to pitching (ie. Hunter Strickland). Offensive approaches and plans to power arms are typically based on timing rather than pitch selection since the majority of pitches thrown are fastball.

Sinker/Slider pitchers (ie. Jeff Samardzija) utilize two different pitches with similar velocity and release points and break to opposite sides of the plate to keep hitters off-balance. As a hitter, sinker/slider guys require more in-game adjustments than say, a hard-thrower because not only do they incorporate corner to corner pitch location, they also change your vision plane vertically as both pitches have depth to them (as illustrated by Lokesh Dhakar below).

Over the last 10 years, the use of a cut-fastball or “cutter has become much more prevalent in baseball. Due to the dominance of Mariano Rivera and his cutter, more pitchers have found ways to effectively incorporate the pitch into their repertoire – Madison Bumgarner, Matt Moore, and Mark Melancon being perfect examples. Cut-fastballs are thrown with fastball grip (pointer finger slider to the right slightly), but shifting the pressure on the ball to the middle finger, versus the pointer finger. The Hardball Times does an excellent job of illustrating the subtle difference.

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As a hitter, good cut-fastballs as difficult to hit because they’re hard to decipher. Sliders are much more easily recognizable as the seams on the ball form a red dot while in flight. Cutters do not have the same tell, and with similar velocity to a 4-seam fastball, can cause problems for hitters.

Back in Spring Training of 2005, I had the opportunity to hit in the batting cage with Hall-of-Famer Frank Thomas. I asked him about hitting against Mariano Rivera, and he told me the biggest challenge was going away from your instincts as a hitter. If a Rivera cut-fastball started out on the inner half of the plate to a right-handed hitter, you had to take (not swing) the pitch because it would cut off the plate for a ball. That’s how much his pitch broke from right to left. The only time you wanted to swing as a right-handed batter was when the cutter started out right at you. Imagine how difficult it would be and how much trust it would take to prepare to swing at a pitch that starts out directly at you at 96mph. No thanks! Conversely for left-handers, if they swung at a pitch that started in the middle of the plate, it would end up breaking their bat and riding up their hands.

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New Giants closer Mark Melancon credit’s his career renaissance to Rivera and the cut-fastball. In 2010, when Melancon was traded to the Astros, he was primarily a 4-seam fastball pitcher who mixed in a curveball and changeup. After a mediocre season in which he was traded to Boston and had a 6.20 ERA, he decided to re-invent himself and began to use a cut-fastball (which he had learned from Rivera when the two were teammates in New York, but never incorporated). According to BrooksBaseball.net, Melancon threw a cut-fastball 76 percent of the time en-route to his first All-Star game selection in 2012, and a season-ending 1.39ERA.

Mix pitchers (ie. Johnny Cueto) are typically starters who rely on the ability to throw strikes with 3 or 4 different type pitches in any count. This type of pitcher is the one that gave me the most headaches because it more-or-less eliminated any advantage I had in terms of guessing pitches or location. According to Brooks Baseball, in Cueto’s three April starts this season, he threw a 4-seam fastball 31% of the time, a 2-Seam/Sinker 21% of the time, a change-up 21% of the time, a cut-fastball 22% of the time, and a slider 4% of the time. All 5 pitch types were thrown for a strike more than 60% of the time, including close to 70% for his 2-seam fastball and slider. This is truly the definition of a mix-pitcher, being able to throw any pitch in any count. Add in his inconsistent wind-ups and delivery motions, and it becomes evident why Cueto is one of the most difficult pitchers in Major League baseball to hit against.

The final classification that I used for a pitcher is what I referred to as a thumber. This term typically pertains to left-handed pitchers, and reflects a pitching approach based on a softer mix of pitches. For the longtime Giants fan, Kirk Reuter was the definition of a thumber as his fastball sat in the low to mid 80s, and his precise command and reliance on off-speed pitches kept hitters off balance. In addition to pinpoint command, thumbers will typically pitch backwards, meaning they throw offspeed pitches in fastball counts, and fastballs in offspeed counts. While the Giants don’t have a prototypical thumber on their roster today (Ty Blach would be closet), Jason Vargas of the Royals gave us a first-hand look of how effective thumbers can be. Vargas allowed only 4 hits over 7 innings against the Giants on April 19th, walking none and striking out 9 despite a fastball that averaged 87mph. Vargas relied on his fastball when ahead in the count and his change-up when behind in the count, the exact opposite of what the Giants expected or were able to adjust to. Thumbers often don’t have much room for error as any lack of command with mediocre velocity can lead to some rough outings. When thumbers are on, I can assure you that no type of pitcher is more frustrating to face.

Hopefully in outlining a few of the broader pitcher classifications, you begin to get an idea of the uphill climb hitters have. In the big leagues, you could be facing a mix-starter, a sinker/slider reliever who’s trying to get you to hit into a double play, followed by a power-arm to close the game. All 3 at-bats are completely different looks, yet hitters are expected to adapt despite getting a single opportunity with 45 minutes between at-bats. Thus is the life of a big league hitter, and proves why hitting is the toughest thing to do well in sports.

In Part 2, we will discuss what hitters can do to tip the scales somewhat back in their favor. With such a wide variety or pitcher variables, hitters’ ability to make adjustments quickly and effectively often is the difference between winning and losing ballgames. To date, the Giants have struggled mightily in this area, thus their 7-15 start to the season.

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