Part 2: The Mental Game of Hitting – The Importance of In-Game Adjustments

Part 2 of this 2-part series addresses the hitters approach to different types of pitchers and pitches (as discussed in Part 1).

As a college hitting coach of 8+ years, one of the biggest differences I notice between professionals and college (or high school) players is the ability to not only formulate a plan before heading into the batter’s box, but staying the course to execute that plan. In college, kids struggle to manage the emotion and intensity that goes into high-stress situations, so often times their desire to succeed outweighs the patience needed to follow through with a plan, even though that plan or approach puts them in the best position to succeed.

In an effort to help my student-athletes develop into mature hitters (hitters who are able to execute their plan & approach regardless of the situation), I implemented a “playbook” to highlight the process of an at-bat versus the result. My hope was for the playbook to provide guidelines for each type of pitcher we would face over the course of a game, adjustments we would need to make for that pitcher, and more importantly – WHY we would adjust that way. In doing so, hitters were able to put all of their focus and energy into executing their plan versus becoming fixated on an uncontrollable result (base hits, batting average, etc).

Below is the playbook I used with my hitters, and depending on the pitcher and our familiarity with his repertoire, what our approach and plan would be offensively to start the game. These plans would undoubtedly change as the situation, pitcher strengths/weaknesses, and hitter strengths/weaknesses would all factor in, but hopefully this provides some insight into offensive game adjustments and executing situational hitting.

The top row identifies the approach or plan we would take into an at-bat. The 2nd row dictates how the hitter is going to carry out that plan, and the third row illustrates why that is the correct approach. Over time, my hope was that hitters would become comfortable making in-game adjustments, and then take ownership over how they would approach each at bat. The better hitters would understand that they’ll be pitched differently, and therefore need to go about their plan or approach differently.

To provide a picture of how this would all be implemented, say for instance, if there was a runner at 2nd base and 1 out and Mark Melancon pitching, I would tell the hitter to “attack – away” meaning that the plan for this at-bat is to look for a fastball on the outer 14” of the plate. This also entails the hitter would not swing at an off-speed pitch (unless it’s hung, therefore easier to hit), or a fastball on the inner half of the plate until he gets to 2 strikes. At 2-strikes, it becomes battle-mode for the hitter as the luxury of accounting for trends is out the window.  As a coach, you’re selecting an approach based on how you think the pitcher is going to pitch your hitter in that situation.

I get asked all the time, what’s more important – picking the correct plan, or executing the plan even if it’s the incorrect one. I’m adamant that hitters, especially young hitters, need to focus on executing the plan. As a hitter becomes more and more comfortable with their own skill set and develop an understanding of how they’ll be pitched, they’ll be able to decipher a proper plan more often than not. The difficult part is relaying the importance of developing and sticking to a plan in the batter’s box. I can assure you all pitchers have a plan, so approaching each at-bat with proper preparation is necessary for hitters to be in a position to succeed.

Circling back to Melacon, “attack-away” would be the approach, but I would stipulate that the cutter had to start either at you or the inner half of the plate. Plan set, now it’s up to hitter to execute when (if) that pitch comes – which again comes back to the maturity of the hitter to execute their swing regardless of the situation. The best hitters in the game hit the ball hard when they get the pitch they’re looking for – conversely hitters who struggle (Chris Marrero comes to mind) either get themselves out of their plan (through swinging at bad pitches or not being fully committed) or the swing they produce is not their best pass at the ball.

Generally-speaking, attack fastball will be utilized against pitchers would have not established corner command with a fastball, or any off-speed command. The longer a hitter is able to stay with this approach, the better as being able to hit fastballs in the middle of the plate will obviously yield positive results.

Attack away is a good approach when facing pitchers who have good command to the outer half of the plate with the fastball, but haven’t established any secondary pitches or willingness to pitch on the inner half. Occasionally, I will also implement attack away if a hitter is starting to pull off the ball, or becoming a pull-side dominant hitter. Denard Span would benefit greatly from this approach as he was pulling off everything, and refused to use the opposite field.

Attack curveball typically is implemented with runners in scoring position as most pitchers with good command will go with off-speed pitches in important situations. In this plan, a hitter is working on later timing so they are no longer on time with a fastball – rather everything is geared to hitting a slower pitched curveball. As I would tell my hitters, “load late, and take a fastball swing” basically relaying to keep the same swing, just change your timing. Breaking balls can be great pitches to hit when you’re looking for them, and often times when you see hitters take fastballs right down the middle, it’s because they’re staying committed to the plan of hitting the off-speed pitch.

Zone up is used primarily against a sinker/slider pitcher in an effort to force the batter to swing at elevated pitches. Both sinker/sliders have depth to them, so not only do they result in a lot of bad pitches that are swung at, they induce a ton of ground balls. With the Zone-Up approach, hitters would force the ball to start out at their letters, allowing the 2-seam movement to drop down into the belt-high area – much more suitable to hit. A ball that starts out at the belt will dive down below the knees, usually resulting in a swing through, or a ground ball. Sinker/Slider pitchers (Cory Gearrin) are often utilized when the opposing team needs to turn a double play, or play the infield in with a runner at 3rd base and less than 2-outs.

Finally, a 2K/+Velo approach would be against an Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel type – the type of pitcher who has elite velocity, and who you really don’t want to get to 2 strikes with. This approach essentially tells the hitter to shorten up the swing, and establish earlier timing so you don’t spend a pitch or two (often strikes) getting calibrated to high velocity. In college, we associated this approach with a 2-strike approach because it encourages a shorter swing to the ball.

It’s important to keep in mind that all of this is just a single facet of a game at the college level. By the time you reach the Big Leagues, it’s fully expected that hitters are able to formulate and execute game plans specific to the game’s best pitchers. I remember at the start of my first Spring Training, former Blue Jays All-Star outfielder Dwayne Murphy telling me that it would take me at least 1,000 minor league at-bats to become confident and experienced enough to hit in the Major Leagues. At the professional level (minors or Majors), everyone’s skill set is good enough – the defining factor is whether or not you can formulate and execute a solid approach at the plate day after day.

Back to the Giants – with the overwhelming amount of data that the Giants have on all the opposing pitchers they face, it’s concerning that they aren’t having the type of success we all expect, especially considering they feature 6 regulars (Posey, Nunez, Crawford, Panik, Belt, and Pence) who have made All-Star games. Despite this star-power, the Giants rank in the bottom 3rd in the National League in several offensive categories. In my mind, this all comes back to a lack of in-game adjustments leading to situational ineffectiveness – especially when it matters most.

Another way to look at this lack of adjustments lies within how the Giants are being pitched. It’s no secret that the platoon combinations of Denard Span/Gorkys Hernandez and Jarrett Parker/Chris Marrero has completely blown up in the Giants faces. But let’s look at their struggles in relation to their ability to make in-game adjustments.

According to Fangraphs, Denard Span see’s fastballs 70.1% of the time, the 3rd highest percentage in all of the National League. These fastballs have an average speed of 92.5mph, just about the Major League average for a fastball. Span, however, is hitting .205 despite not having to account for a pitcher throwing him different types of pitches. Opposing pitchers are throwing Span fastballs, and he knows it. Yet for some reason (could be the health of his hip), he continues to roll ground balls over to 2nd base, and has been unable at this point, to adjust in the most elementary aspect of hitting – hit the fastball. Until Span is able to force pitchers to change how they approach him, he’ll continue to be an easy out and non-factor in the Giants lineup.

Hernandez is much the same story, as he has seen 66% of his pitches as fastballs. For a reference point, Buster Posey sees 55% fastball, Hunter Pence sees 54%, and Brandon Crawford sees 52%. Why the difference? Because Posey, Pence, and Crawford destroy fastballs, especially when they know it’s coming.

Chris Marrero, like Span and Hernandez, struggled to make adjustments, only he was getting a healthy dose of sliders. Almost a quarter (24.2%) of the pitches Marrero saw were sliders, the 4th highest total on the team to Pence, Posey, and Nunez. In fact, according to Brooks Baseball, Marrero had seen 74 non-fastballs this season, and had 1 hit – that’s right. 1 hit, as in 1 more than everyone who is reading this article right now.

Span, Hernandez, and Marrero have struggled – we all know that. But they aren’t the only problem. Despite solid statistical seasons from the expected Giants stars, they’ve struggled when it matters most. It’s one thing to get a 2-out single with nobody on base – quite another to get a 2-out single with runners at 2nd and 3rd. If the Giants are going to get over the hump, they are going to have to start making the adjustments needed to hit in these big spots.

I hope by now you understand that as simple as Buster Posey makes hitting look, there’s so much more that goes into the result you see on TV. The Giants have as much offensive talent as almost anyone in baseball, they just have done a terrible job in some of the more basic aspects of the game. Now I’ll be the first to admit that hitting is contagious – if Posey, Pence, and Crawford all get going at the same time, this will all become irrelevant. But until then, I believe that the Giants need to get back to the basics. They don’t hit homeruns, so the majority of their runs will have to be manufactured by smart, situational at-bats up and down the lineup. That has not happened in 2017, but it is my hope in reading this, that you’ll have a better understanding of what pitchers are trying to do on the mound, and what the Giants need to start doing to stay one-step ahead.

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