Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters to ever set foot in a batter's box, said, “The number one thing a hitter must do, with less than two strikes, is to swing at a pitch he can drive. The hitter must look for a pitch that can be hit hard and hit far.”
The great Ted Williams always hit with a specific hitting plan. He knew where the pitch had to be to allow him to hit the ball hard and hit it far. He had a plan in place before the pitcher started his delivery, and from there, he was ready to crush 'his pitch'. Like all great hitters, with less than 2 strikes, he wasn’t protecting the strike zone. Rather, he was looking for the pitch to come through an area that allowed him to maximize his power. He surely wasn’t wasting his swings on errant pitches, nor was he wasting his at-bats swinging at 'pitchers' strikes'.
Teddy Ballgame had a hitting intelligence that was second to none, and he put that knowledge into a simple repeatable plan. His plan prioritized visual processing skills over swing skills. That's not to say Ted Williams didn't value swing technique. He certainly did. He simply had the wisdom and clarity to see that pitch selection was a higher priority. First, get a good pitch to hit, and then second, put a good swing on it.
STRIVE TO SIMPLIFY
Albert Einstein famously said, “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Geniuses, like Einstein, seek to remove all unnecessary complexities, as they clearly understand the enormous value of simplicity. Hitters should follow their lead. Great business leaders look to streamline processes, while on the baseball field, great coaches teach concepts clearly and concisely. With a similar mindset, elite hitters simplify their hitting plan and their hitting approach because they know how difficult the physical part inherently is. In this article, I've put years and years of research and knowledge into simplifying and optimizing the hitting plan/approach. With that said, I'll explain that a batter needs only three hitting plans, no more, no less, and knowing exactly which plan to use is actually very simple.
I'll refer to the three ‘Hitting Plans’ as PLAN A, PLAN B, and PLAN TAKE, but you can call them anything you'd like. The plans can take on any name, just keep it simple. Before moving forward, to ensure we're all on the same page, I will use the words ‘Hitting Plan which is synonymous with ‘Hitting Approach’. It is actually a bit more common in the baseball world to hear the words ‘Hitting Approach’, but I’ll use ‘Hitting Plan’.
NO EASY BUTTON
Clearly, the action of hitting a baseball is an extremely difficult task, and we can look at some numbers for context. Batting average, because of its omissions, is a suboptimal stat to quantify hitter value, but it's a popular stat that, for the great players, hovers around a success rate of only 30-35%. The all-time best home run hitters only hit a home run 8% of the time. Moreover, a batter has less than 1/4 of a second to see the pitch coming before needing to decide whether to swing or not. If the batter misjudges the timing of the pitch by milliseconds, they will be unsuccessful. If a hitter misestimates the pitch’s path by an inch or two, they will likely be unsuccessful.
Hitting is very challenging, even for the best in the world. Therefore, optimizing the hitting process should be welcomed with open arms by all hitters and hitting coaches. In fact, I'm a little surprised this simplification isn't universally discussed throughout the baseball community. Hitters and hitting coaches, for years, have worked to simplify and improve the swing by removing inefficiencies, which is an awesome thing. Now, in this article, I will simplify and optimize the 'hitting plan'. We will discuss the only three options that hitters truly need. And just as importantly, I will explain that choosing which of the three plans to use is inherently super simple.
Before we go any further, if you're an 'old school' baseball person stuck in your ways, you should just stop reading here. For example, if you still think MLB front offices use stats such as a 'pitcher's win total' to determine a pitcher's true value, this should be the last sentence you read. Likewise, if you're a "new-school" baseball person and you discredit an old-school baseball person's knowledge simply because he didn't use 'technology' to gather that knowledge, well then, you too should probably stop reading here. With that said, it's my guess that 'old-school' guys will have a more difficult time seeing the truth behind what I'm about to say. Not because they are dumb. Oh no, 'old school' guys can surely process what I'm about to say. It's just that they will likely have to break through a much thicker mental barrier. When coaches and players have been immersed in the game for a very long time, they typically have a more solidified paradigm. And when presented with information that is contrary to their long-held beliefs, well, that cognitive dissonance can create a high level of discomfort. With that said, if I were an organization/head coach, and I was filling out my coaching staff, I would first look high and low for 'old-school' baseball people that also possess malleable mindsets. It's the best of both worlds: long-term experience blended with long-term learning. That there is the golden paradigm recipe.
Now, I am certain, no matter the depth of your baseball knowledge, that if you keep, as they say in the Zen world, a 'beginner's mind,' you’ll find the following information very insightful and, most importantly, extremely useful. Let's break it down!
SIMPLER THAN WE’VE THOUGHT
Let's first discuss some common thoughts, some conventional wisdom, about hitting plans. First, it’s very common to hear hitters discussing what they're looking for in, say, a 2-0 count or what they were looking for 1-1 or what they were trying to do in an 0-1 count. Indeed, each of these counts has different ratios of balls and strikes. However, in this article, I’ll explain exactly why a hitter should use the same hitting plan for all three of those counts.
Furthermore, it’s very common to hear hitters and coaches discuss what kind of pitch to look for when ahead, even or behind in the count, referring to the ratio of balls and strikes. This is commonly referred to as 'count leverage.'
However, this article will explain that being behind, even, or ahead in the count, in regards to the ball/strike ratio, should NOT dictate the ‘Hitting Plan’. Yes, you read that correctly. Think about it like this: If a hitter is basing the hitting plan on the ball/strike ratio, i.e. "count leverage", they are doing so on a hunch, a guess. Now, whether it's an educated guess or not, it's still a guess. Great hitters don't make a living by guessing. There are two major flaws to using the ball/strike ratio, the quote-unquote 'count leverage', to dictate what the hitting plan will be for the next pitch.
First, the pitcher is free to throw whatever pitch he wants, whenever he wants, regardless of the count. Secondly, this 'count leverage' plan is based on the assumption that the pitcher is going to throw a hitter's pitch when there are more balls than strikes and a pitcher's pitch when there are more strikes than balls. If you've watched just a little bit of baseball in your life, you'll know that pitchers chuck 0-2 fastballs down the middle, and they'll pull the string on a good 2-0 change-ups. You'll see a clear example of this hitting plan/approach backfiring when the hitter takes an 0-2 FB down the middle and gets badly fooled on a 2-1 splitter in the dirt. At the end of the day, guessing based on the ball/strike ratio is a suboptimal plan. And while 'count leverage' might occasionally allow the hitter to make a more accurate guess, it's still guessing, and good hitters do not guess. To top it off, it's relatively easy for pitchers, catchers, and pitching coaches to spot and counter those hitters that are guessing fastball when they're "ahead" in the count and looking for off-speed when they're "behind." Then instead of guessing, the hitter's mind will be spinning.
THE TROUT FARM
Now, before we jump into the nuts and bolts of each plan, let’s take a swing by the Trout Farm to see an example of how even the best hitter, when hitting without the correct plan, can fall for the pitcher's bait, hook, line, and splitter.
It was summertime a few years ago, and I had scored four Diamond Club tickets from my best friend to the Angels vs. Yankees game. On top of that, my buddy Geldy, an ex-pro baseball player born and raised Dominican, was in town visiting.
Fast forward to mid-game, and as I was returning to my seat with Geldy, along with some deliciously loaded nachos, I heard the stadium’s sound system begin to thump loudly. As I sat down, I peered over at the Angels’ on-deck circle just in time to see the great Mike Trout walking toward the plate. Mike was chomping on his gum and had his confident swag going. The stadium was getting loud as the incredible Trout was coming up to bat, and he was coming up to the plate with the bases loaded.
On the mound was Masahiro Tanaka, a quality pitcher who had held the Angels scoreless to that point but had put himself in a tough spot after losing his command for a few hitters, allowing the bases to fill with Angels. The count went to 3 and 1, three balls and one strike. The home crowd's support was loud, and the bases were packed with Trout's teammates.
What happened next was quite shocking, even for a guy like me who played professionally and had been going to MLB games since the mid-’80s. What happened next made it crystal clear that Ted Williams was so clearly right. The most important thing for a hitter with less than two strikes is to swing at a pitch he can drive hard with some elevation while laying off everything else.
We’ll come back to the Trout vs. Tanaka showdown in a minute, but let’s first talk about PLAN A.
Now I call it PLAN A, but it can take on any name you'd like. PLAN A will be the most commonly used ‘hitting plan’ and is used when there are zero strikes or one strike. When a hitter is using PLAN A, the hitter is looking for a pitch that can be crushed. As Teddy Ballgame put it, “A pitch he can handle, a pitch he can drive.”
Each hitter’s ‘hot zones’ will vary. Take Trout, for example; he crushes low pitches while many other hitters struggle driving pitches in that location. Although, generally speaking, a meatball is a meatball, and a cookie to one is a cookie to all.
Fastballs down the middle, hanging breaking balls, flat sliders, belt-high change-ups are all pitches that should be crushed. To keep it simple, hitters should look for the pitch to be in a certain location and avoid looking for specific pitch types unless the hitter is super advanced and has solid knowledge of the opposing pitchers. Pitch location should be the only prerequisite for a swing. Most hitters will quickly grasp a clear understanding of what pitches they can drive hard and what those pitches look like coming into the hitting zone.
Now, while the pitch selection may vary slightly between hitters, the aggressiveness of their swing should not. In PLAN A, when the hitter sees the pitch coming, and it’s clearly a pitch that can be driven hard, the hitter needs to swing full speed and nothing less. More specifically, the bat should be going full speed through the contact zone. Do note, when I say full swing, I mean a controlled and well-balanced full-speed swing.
What is never allowed while using PLAN A are weak swings. A hitter should never slow their swing down through the contact zone when using PLAN A.
If a hitter is fooled late when using PLAN A, it’s better to swing and miss than to hit the ball weakly, especially for older players with better defenses in front of them. A perfect example of this occurs when a hitter is fooled by a good change-up, and rather than continuing to swing hard, the hitter slows the swing down in order to "make contact". Well, by making contact with a weak swing, the hitter did the pitcher and the defense a favor. The hitter likely produced an easy out for the defense, and let's hope it wasn't a double play.
Many young hitters create a habit of ‘just making contact,' but with a lot of focused reps, a hitter can break this bad habit. I believe this bad habit stems partly from youth players having a strong ego-driven fear of missing the ball. They don't want to look bad in front of their friends. As coaches, we need to make it very clear to our hitters that it is perfectly ok to swing and miss at a pitch, so long as it was in a location that allowed the ball to be driven hard. If the hitter swings full speed at a 'hitter's pitch' yet misses, it should still be viewed positively. The hitter worked the plan, and by working the plan, the hitter will not be guaranteed success, but they will optimize their chance of success.
Now if your hitters are getting fooled frequently, I highly recommend changing the batting practice plan to include a random variety of pitch types, or maybe take a good look at the swing technique to see if it needs some tinkering. I do highly recommend focusing on perfecting the hitter's plan before getting overly consumed with fixing the swing technique.
To reiterate, in PLAN A, the hitter is never trying to ’just put the ball in play.’ The only caveat to that would be when a ‘Hit & Run’ has been signaled in from the coach. The H&R is typically not a choice the batter makes, thus, we will not dive into a ‘Hit & Run Plan.’
Again, how does a hitter know when to use PLAN A? Simple, when there are less than two strikes. Any count with less than two strikes inherently gives the hitter another opportunity. If a swing and miss were to occur or if the pitcher were to throw a strike in a difficult to hit location, the at-bat would still continue.
Let's go back to that 2-0, 1-1, and 0-1 discussion from earlier. The commonality is that all three counts have less than two strikes. The number of strikes is what’s most important to follow, not whether the count has more balls than strikes or more strikes than balls or an even amount of strikes and balls. With zero strikes or one strike, the hitter is not down to the last strike. Why swing at a tough-to-hit strike when the at-bat is assured to continue, whether the count is 0-1 or 3-1?
Great hitters do not go into ‘strike zone protection’ mode with less than two strikes. The other team has nine defenders hoping the hitter does just that, especially when there’s an opportunity to turn a double play. Great hitters understand, with less than two strikes, adding a strike to the count is immensely better than adding an out or two to the scoreboard. Plan A means seeking an A+ pitch to hit and then giving it an A+ swing.
THE TROUT WENT FISHING
Let’s now return to that nice summer evening in Anaheim to check back in with the amazing Mr. Trout. The bases are loaded, and the count is three balls and one strike. Trout, the game’s best hitter, is standing in the batter’s box ready to drive in some runs. Trout clearly had the confidence going. He had the crowd in his favor, but the thing he didn’t have was the thing he needed most: ‘Plan A.’
What unfolded next clearly illustrates that without using the correct ‘hitting plan,’ even the best hitters can look as bad as the 12th best hitter on a tee ball team from Montana*. As Tanaka delivered the pitch, it was immediately clear that it wasn’t going to be anywhere near the strike zone. The release point was wildly off, and the ball was steeply angled downward. Remember, with a 3-1 count, Trout should have been in PLAN A mode. He should have been looking for a pitch he could drive hard rather than assume he was going to get a hitter's pitch. However, the pitch landed in the dirt three feet in front of home plate, and yet, the great Mike Trout swung. He probably couldn’t have reached the pitch if he was swinging a canoe oar. Mike, uncharacteristically, was guessing at the plate.
Let’s give some context to the situation. There have been over 10,000 MLB hitters, and Mike Trout is already in the top 300 for the most career walks. One doesn’t get there by routinely going up to bat without a plan. One doesn’t get that high up on the ‘walk’ leaderboard by swinging without restraint. Trout is an extremely intelligent hitter, and his physical skills are off the charts. He is the best hitter in today’s game, yet without the correct ‘hitting plan,’ even Trout can look really, really terrible.
Some may ask, what if he just got fooled by a great pitch? In the Major Leagues, there is no such thing as a “hitter’s pitch” that lands 3 feet in front of home plate.
Living minutes from where Mike Trout has played all of his home games and seeing him play often, that 3-1 swing had me a bit shocked, but it was the 3-2 pitch that removed all doubt that Mike was clearly without a solid hitting plan during that at-bat. On the 3-2 pitch, Tanaka delivered a fastball on the inner third, and Trout watched it go right by for strike three. His bat didn’t move an inch, and now the inning was over with his three teammates left on base, and his team still losing. According to Fangraphs.com, Mike Trout has seen over 21,000 pitches in his career, and his contact rate is 95% for the area in which Tanaka’s 3-2 fastball passed through. Mike has the ability to hit that 3-2 pitch hard, but what Mike didn't have on that 3-2 pitch was PLAN 2.
PLAN 2 is the ‘hitting plan’ hitters should use when the count has two strikes. With two strikes, a hitter must not swing at everything, but a hitter must swing at anything in the strike zone, as well as any pitch within a few inches of the strike zone. For youth players, PLAN 2 may necessitate swinging at pitches within a foot of the strike zone, depending on what the umpire is calling a strike that day.
Unlike PLAN A, using PLAN 2, the hitter will swing as aggressively as the pitch allows. If the pitch happens to be a meatball in the “crush it zone,” then the hitter will swing full speed. If the pitch is well executed by the pitcher, then the hitter will adjust the swing speed to hit the ball with as much power as the pitch allows. Yes, in PLAN 2 against a well-executed pitch, the hitter will want to ‘just put the ball in play' rather than strikeout**.
If the pitch is near the strike zone, the hitter should put his best swing on the pitch. Leaving it up to the umpire, especially at the youth levels, is a big risk.
Mark T. Williams at Boston University did a study on the strike zones of MLB umpires and concluded that over the past 10 years, MLB umpires have incorrectly called 28,182 pitches. 28,182 times a pitch that was technically a ball was called a strike by an MLB umpire. The real kicker to that stat is the data set only includes pitches in which the count had two strikes. That is an error rate of almost 30%, and each time it resulted in a strikeout.
Trying to estimate with the human eye, in 1/100th of a second, whether or not a 93 mph pitch crossed over the corner of the plate at the correct height is incredibly challenging for humans to do accurately. Even at the youth level, with pitches traveling much slower, it is very difficult for umps to be perfect, so hitters of all ages, you've been forewarned.
Some may ask, "But what about a 3-2 count, should the hitter be more selective being only one ball away from a walk?" Simple answer, no. Even in a 3-2 count and one pitch from a walk, the hitter should not let a pitch close to the strike zone go by without a swing. No matter how many balls the count has, with two strikes and a pitch near the strike zone, a hitter must not leave it up to the umpire.
**Note: There are acute situations that may exempt super-advanced hitters from using PLAN 2. Extremely advanced hitters might have the mental agility to vary their PLAN 2 when facing a two-strike count, with less than two outs, and a runner on first base. In this situation, it's best to maintain a full, or mostly full swing, preferring the worst-case scenario of a strikeout over rolling into a tailor-made double play.
PLAN A and PLAN 2 are the two main plans; however, there is a third plan that is used effectively but it too has set parameters. Let's talk about PLAN TAKE.
PLAN TAKE (PLAN T)
Yogi Berra wittingly said, “You can observe a lot by watching.” The humorous All-Century Team catcher was an extremely observant player and one of the greatest hitting catchers of all time. Yogi Berra had a uniquely keen eye for the game. With that in mind, let’s discuss the third ‘Hitting Plan.’ I call it PLAN TAKE, but again, other names would work.
PLAN TAKE is going to be the least used of the three plans.
PLAN TAKE is the only plan a batter truly chooses. PLAN A & PLAN 2 are solely dictated by the number of strikes, whereas PLAN TAKE can be used when the hitter feels the need to first observe a pitch before moving to PLAN A. PLAN TAKE is a choice, but it should only be used when the count has zero strikes.
By choosing PLAN TAKE, the hitter is putting PLAN A on hold for a pitch or two. When a hitter chooses PLAN TAKE, they want to take the next pitch regardless of how juicy it may turn out to be.
Some may wonder why a hitter would decide not to swing at the ball before the pitcher even starts his delivery. There are some excellent reasons for using PLAN TAKE. For example, a hitter may want to see how the pitch looks before adding a swing to the equation, especially if the pitcher has an atypical delivery or a unique pitch type.
Some pitchers have very deceptive or quirky deliveries, such as sidearm pitchers, giving hitters another good reason to closely observe a full pitch before enacting PLAN A.
Another situation that may warrant using ‘Plan Take’ is when facing a pitcher with uncommon velocity. The hitter may want to gather intel on the timing of the pitch or path the pitch took. With better timing and a better understanding of how the next pitch will look, a hitter may actually increase their at-bat success rate, even if the count goes to 0-1.
The icing on the ‘Plan Take’ cake occurs when a hitter gets to collect valuable pitch information while also dodging a strike. The MLB average strike percentage is 62%, thus an MLB hitter using PLAN TAKE to simply gather intel still has a 38% chance of avoiding a strike. That is why in PLAN TAKE, it's best to keep that poker face while maintaining the look of a heavy hitter.
As we finish up with PLAN TAKE, there's one last situation that may warrant its use, and that’s when the pitcher has been excessively wild for two or more of the previous hitters. When a pitcher is struggling with his command and accuracy, the last thing an offense should do is swing into a quick one-pitch out or worse, a momentum-changing double play. In this situation, it is important to make the wild pitcher do a little extra to earn your swing.
Now, those are the situations that may warrant PLAN TAKE, but the real key for the batter, once they’ve decided on using PLAN TAKE, is to focus intently on the pitcher’s delivery, the release point, the pitch path, and the pitch speed. Then, take a deep breath, apply the collected information, and then crush one of the following pitches!
*For the record, I really like Montana. Much of my family lives there, and during my youth, I spent many summer nights watching Pioneer League games in Butte, Helena, and Billings, but let's be honest, those Big Sky baseball fields are lucky if they thaw out before June.
By: COACH BO
Photo: Coach Bo
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