What Does it Mean to Have an Approach When Hitting?
By Jim Koerner
This question gets asked a lot, and there are many ways it can be answered. What’s the situation, who’s on the mound, what are the hitter’s strengths and weaknesses, what is the hitter’s state of mind, and how does the hitter conceptualize their process toward success are all important questions.
You can find a mental, perceptual, physical, and mechanical component to every swing. Each component carries its own percentage of importance towards each swing outcome. We have all seen hitters with great physical tools and perfect mechanics struggle on game day. A portion of those struggles can be attributed to the hitter lacking a defined approach. The ability to define the approach and have the focus and discipline to execute it separates the bad from the good and the good from the great. We’ll discuss multiple ways an approach plays a role in the hitting process.
An approach can be adjusted from pitch to pitch, at-bat to at-bat, and game to game. Pitch to pitch adjustments to approach can come from count management, pitch sequencing, or the game situation. For example, a hitter comes to the plate with a runner on first base and no one out. The coach gives the hit and run sign. The batter understands that he now must swing at any pitch and try to put the ball on the ground. Before the first pitch of the at-bat is thrown, the pitcher balks. Now with a runner on second, the right-handed hitter is looking for a pitch he can hit to the right side of the field, advancing the runner to third base. After a swinging strike, the runner steals thirds on ball one. Now we have a 1-1 count with a runner on third base, and the infield is up. The batter is now going to look for a ball up in the zone that he can drive in the air using the middle of the field. In the course of one at-bat, this batter’s approach changed three times. Each situation can also play a large role in how a batter might be pitched, especially with runners in scoring position. Your place in the batting order might also be significant. If your team’s best hitter is batting behind you, the chance you get something to hit increases. If you’re the team’s best hitter, you might only see curveballs and sliders. Hitters that can clearly define the changes in the situation and have the discipline to make the pitch to pitch adjustments are more likely to sustain consistent success.
Other approach adjustments can be made based on who’s on the mound, pitcher tendencies, and how you have been pitched in previous at-bats. If a pitcher has good stuff and the ability to throw strikes with multiple pitches, hitters need to remain aggressive. Conversely, if the pitcher struggles throwing strikes with average stuff, the hitter now has the luxury of being more selective. Other ways a batter’s approach can be adjusted is through pitcher tendencies and previous at-bats. If it is recognized that elevated fastballs are followed by breaking balls, a hitter can adjust accordingly. Further adjustments can be made if a batter recognizes he is consistently being pitched away. If the pitcher struggles throwing off-speed for strikes, the batter can now sit exclusively on fastballs. Another question to ask would be how the pitcher uses his change-up. Is it only a right on left or left on right pitch, or is he willing to throw it to same-sided hitters?
Keeping pitch tendency charts is a great way to recognize some of these patterns. It is also important that players pay attention in the dugout. The ability to have answers to the following questions can help them prepare for their next at-bat. What is the out pitch? Does he get ahead early? Does he challenge hitters with his fastball? Does he expand the zone with two strikes? Can he effectively pitch in? Does he like to pitch backward (off-speed in fastball counts, and fastballs in breaking ball counts)? Can he consistently throw off-speed pitches for strikes?
Pre-game Pitcher Observations
Defining your approach should begin before the game when you find out who’s pitching. If you’re capable of watching the pitcher warm-up, this can serve as a valuable learning moment. By watching the pre-game bullpen, you can now see what arm slot the pitcher is throwing from, does he tunnel his fastball and off-speed well, or is there different arm slots for different pitches. You should also be able to determine if the arm slows down for any off-speed pitches. Also, depending on the angle, you might be able to determine if the fastball has ride or sink and what type of shape the breaking ball has. Good hitters can identify these qualities and use them to their advantage. The earlier you have this information, the better. Adjustments should always be made as the game progresses.
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Hitter
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses allows you to hone your own personal approach to each at-bat. Some good hitters won’t deviate from their strengths unless they have two strikes, regardless of the situation. This takes discipline and commitment. By relying on the pitcher to make a mistake, you must also have a comfort level hitting deeper in counts. Being comfortable hitting in deeper counts gives the hitter additional opportunities to see the pitcher’s full arsenal and also increases the likelihood of the pitcher making a mistake. Ultimately when facing good pitching, hitters typically should be focused on hitting fastballs and mistakes (off-speed pitches left elevated in the strike zone). When formulating your approach, keep this in mind. Good sliders, curveballs, and change-ups are good for a reason. They’re difficult to hit.
Count Based and Two Strike Hitting
There are two counts that should garner attention, less than two strikes and with two strikes. 48-49% (FanGraphics) of all at-bats during the course of a Major League season will be with two strikes. It stands to reason that considerable time needs to be spent refining this approach. While there are many theories on how to approach two-strike hitting, a hitter needs to find something that clicks for them. Some common two-strike approaches include spreading out the stance to eliminate extra movement, choking up on the bat, or crowding the plate. Other approach-based adjustments include taking “A” swings with less than two strikes and “B” swings with two strikes. This tells a hitter to shorten the swing or see the ball deeper and use the opposite gap. FanGraphics states that the average chase rate for an MLB player on all pitches is 30%, while the average chase rate for an MLB player with two strikes is around 42%. This is a significant increase. Knowing that chase rates typically increase with two strikes for various reasons, one of which is the hitter becoming overly aggressive, shrinking the strike zone with an opposite gap approach can shorten swings and help keep hitters in a better hitting posture. A “shrink the zone” cue is more of a feel than an actual directive for a hitter, but for someone overly aggressive, this might click for them. Working from the top of the strike zone to the bottom, as opposed to looking for the ball away or the ball down, also has benefits with two strikes. First, it allows the hitter the ability to cover the ever more popular elevated fastball. Secondly, any off-speed that starts at the bottom of the zone will be easier to let ride off the plate. Since almost half of your at-bats will come with two strikes finding a way to be productive is imperative. However, a hitter settles on their two-strike approach, the ultimate goal should still be to hit strikes hard.
State of Mind
While the other approach-based concepts are mostly established through existing data or factual observation, the batter’s mindset can’t be overlooked. The ability to be confident and aggressive while also possessing calmness and discipline is essential. A good hitter is always mentally prepared to attack. The objective of the mindset is to be ready to swing at every pitch until you shouldn’t. Some coaches call it the Yes, Yes, No approach. This type of approach gathers the body in a proactive hitting position for every pitch.
One way to properly prepare the mind to hit is the development of positive mental triggers.
This is a technique that military snipers use to perform at elite levels. The book The Sniper Mind describes a trigger as an event or action that induces a certain mental state. The book goes on to say triggers should be automatic and familiar. Once the trigger is established, you need to link it to the desired new habit. The book interviews a military sniper who says, “When things get crazy, and there’s a slight sense of panic, and then fear, I tell myself I am a killing machine. In my mind, I have this picture. No flaws, no fear, no mistakes. I am a machine. The perfect machine. And then my brain goes into high gear. Everything happens more slowly; at a distance, I can see things clearer. I feel calm and in control. I become the killing machine of my mind. All gleaming chrome and steel.”
Translating this to baseball, stepping into the batter’s box should elicit similar responses. The batter becomes the hitting machine of his mind with the necessary imagery and self-talk to produce the same state of being. Many hitters already do this subconsciously, but by consciously making this a part of the approach process, you are training your brain to work in specific ways.
If you talk with ten different hitters, you may get ten different answers, but everyone has the same goal of getting their best swing off as consistently as possible. A hitter needs to find what works for them. I recommend keeping it simple! Hitting is difficult enough without overcomplicating it with too many intricate specificities. It starts with being able to be on time for fastballs. A hitter is unable to make adjustments unless there’s a consistent ability in this area. Mike Trout has said it multiple times throughout his career. His general approach is to be on time for the fastball and then adjust to off-speed. Albert Pujols takes it a step further and says he looks for fastballs over the plate with a gap-to-gap approach. Some players, such as Christian Yelich, hit off feel. Other hitters use a combination of the concepts we’ve discussed. This knowledge will help you formulate your plan and put you in the best position to have consistent pitch to pitch, at-bat to at-bat, and game to game success.
Jim Koerner is currently the Director of Player Development at USA Baseball. Koerner has 21 years of college coaching experience, including 18 years at the D1 level. He spent 13 years as a college head coach, with ten as an NCAA D1 head coach. Koerner has coached over 30 MLB draft or professional Free Agent Signees, 11 All-Americans, 4 Conference Players of the Year, 4 Conference Rookies of the Year, 2 Conference Pitchers of the Year, and over 60 All-Conference selections. Additionally, Koerner is a 2x Conference Coach of the Year and 2021 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Southern Division Champion..