Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hitting Strategy: Don't step into the batter's box without a hitting game plan

It is widely acknowledged that hitting a baseball is one of the most difficult tasks in all of sports. Standing in the batters box 60 feet 6 inches away from the pitcher whom throws a white 3 inch baseball across a 17 inch plate at speeds up to 90+ mph with only a 33 inch bat possessing a sweet spot of 3. 7 inches can cause anxiety for many players. When you factor in the potential for pitches of different speeds, locations, and movements, as well as the 8 other position players behind the pitcher who's primary job is to defend against those hitters skilled enough to put a ball in play, it is a wonder that hitters are ever successful.

The pitcher clearly has the advantage. However, with a good hitting strategy, you can improve your performance and subsequent enjoyment in the aforementioned situation.

What I find at the high school level, is that hitters don't have a consistent hitting game plan and end up getting themselves out. In spite of the pitchers ability, the hitters are unsuccessful offensively by swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, failing to recognize hitters counts versus pitchers counts, and giving up the outside part of the plate which prevents the team from scoring runs and directly impacts wins and losses.

My goal within the next few paragraphs is to equip you with the framework for a hitting strategy and a hitting game plan where you will a)have an aggressive swing thought b) attack fastballs in the strike zone on hitters counts c) narrow your plate coverage to play the percentages and d) predict pitch type and location based on data and tendencies. As with all aspects of your skill development, this strategy/hitting approach must be practiced with discipline and commitment.

A) Aggressive swing thought- Successful hitting requires aggressiveness. For a 90 mph fastball, the hitter has approximately 1/4 of a second to see the pitch, determine it's spin, speed and location, and start the swing. No time for wasted motion or thought. The batter must approach each pitch with an aggressive "go" swing thought. He does not have time evaluate the pitch and then make two decisions (swing or not to swing). Instead, he commits each at bat to swing unless his assessment of the pitch tells him to not swing. So when you enter the batters box, commit to swinging at the pitch and use the 1/4 of a second to stop yourself if it warrants (one decision instead of two).

B) Attack fastballs in the Strike Zone on hitters counts- A hitter may face up to 12 counts at any given at-bat (see below). Some of the counts favor the hitter, some will favor the pitcher, while others are neutral. The hitters goal is to operate within the hitters counts by: only swinging at strikes and only swinging at hitters pitches in a hitters count.

By their own admission, hitters hit the fastball better than they hit the curve ball. Data shows that pitchers have a tendency to throw fastballs when the count is in the hitters favor (hence the name hitters count). So when you find yourself in a hitters count, expect a fastball.

However, one method to get hitters to get themselves out is for a pitcher to throw a curve ball in a hitters count fooling the hitter. As a hitter, if you have a hitters count (let's say 2-0) and the pitcher throws a curve (or other off speed pitch) do not offer at it. At worst the count is 2-1 and remains a hitters count. The following pitch will likely be a fastball for two reasons: pitchers tend to throw fastballs in hitter counts and pitchers rarely throw the same off speed pitch in sequence i.e. curve ball, curve ball.

Hitter's Count: 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1, 3-2 (Expect Fastball)
Pitcher's Counts: 0-1, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2 (Expect Pitcher's pitch)
Even Counts: 0-0, 1-1

C) Narrow your plate coverage to play the percentages- Few hitters can control both sides of the plate consistently thus hitters must make a choice of which to give up. Over 70% of pitches in the strike zone are from just inside the midway point of the plate to the outside corner. Many more outs are made on the outside part of the plate. In fact, with runners in scoring position, pitchers will work the ball away (outside part of the plate) to avoid giving up a double in the gap or HR. I instruct my players to expect the ball "middle-away" and react to it "inside".

D) Predict pitch type and location based on data and tendencies- Baseball players hit fast balls better than they hit curve balls. Pitchers throw fastballs in hitters counts. Pitchers also throw a majority of their pitches on the outer half of the plate. If we use these facts in conjunction with the known tendencies of the players/coaches, we should be able to predict the pitch and location based on the count on the batter and runners on base.

For example, a batter has a 1-0 count. He should expect to swing at the next pitch which he predicts will be a fastball away. If he receives an off speed pitch or a pitch outside the strike zone, he does not swing. If he receives the pitch he expects in the location he expects it, he is very likely to hit it hard possibly resulting in a hit.

Summary- Hitting a baseball is a very difficult skill to master. To improve the probability of getting a hit the batter must have an aggressive ("go") swing thought, hit the pitchers fastball when the count is in the hitters favor, narrow the plate to play the percentages, and anticipate/predict the pitch and location based on tendencies.

Have a game plan for hitting. Use this approach on every at-bat to improve your chances to succeed. You now have the information, put it to work for you. Have discipline, confidence, and commitment to the hitting approach and improve your performance.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Story of the Rally Cap

We have all seen them and on occasion tested its powers, however few have understood the origins of the Rally Cap. So, I give you the Story of the Rally Cap.
The most widely accepted definition for the term rally cap is: To wear one's baseball cap turned inside out and often sideways to encourage a rally from your favorite baseball team. Must be performed in the confines of a sporting facility and works best in the late innings of a game with runners on base.

According to rallycap.com:
The first appearance of the Rally Cap was during the 1942 baseball season, when fans of the Detroit Tigers, while in attendance at Tiger Stadium, occasionally would wear their baseball caps inside-out as a makeshift talisman to generate a come-from-behind victory in the late innings of a baseball game. The superstition spread from the fans to the Tigers players themselves, and rose to national awareness during the 1945 World Series when the Detroit Tigers were playing the Chicago Cubs.

The Tigers were tied in Game 5 with the series tied at 2-2. In the 6th inning of that game, the radio announcer mentioned certain members of the Tigers in the dugout wearing their caps inside out. Subsequently, in that inning of that game, the Tigers scored 4 runs after a ball rolled between the legs of the Chicago first baseman. The Tigers then went on to win the game 8-4. The historic rally led to a Game 7 win, allegedly with the prominent assistance of their "Rally Caps" allowing them to become the 1945 World Series Champions.

The Rally Cap was not seen again for another 41 years until the 1986 World Series when the New York Mets were playing the Boston Red Sox. The Mets were losing game six and already down 3 games to 2 in the series. It seemed almost certain that the Red Sox were going to be the 1986 World Series Champs, but in the 7th inning of that game something amazing happened. The Mets players all started wearing their caps inside out while sitting in The dugout, catching on, the fans also started to sport their caps inside out and the Rally Cap was reborn. Then just like in the 1945 World Series the Mets won that game when the Red Sox first baseman made an era on a routine ground ball.

Then in game 7 the Mets were behind again by a score of 3 to 0 in the 6th inning and one more time in need of a little magic, so the fans and players put on their Rally Caps and the rest is baseball history. The New York Mets rallied back and went on to win that game by a score of 8 to 5, became the 1986 World Series Champions and brought new life to the Rally Cap.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Steal the base if PD + POP > ST

We previously established the undeniable fact that scoring from 2nd base is more likely than scoring from 1st base. In case you forgot, I have noted the probabilities below:

  • Probability of scoring from 2nd with no outs is 40% higher than scoring from 1st with no outs.
  • Probability of scoring from 2nd with one out is 55% higher than scoring from 1st with one out.
  • Probability of scoring from 2nd with two outs is 85% higher than scoring from 1st with two outs.
Given this general understanding, it is important for teams to secure 2nd base early and often. The first option considered by coaches should be to steal the base. This requires the player to be skilled in taking leads, reading pitchers, getting a good jump, possessing good speed, and executing proper sliding mechanics. None of which are the subject of this blog. As a precurser to attempting a steal, the coach must evaluate the risk of a failed attempt.

The risk associated with an attempted steal of a base should be understood as a part of managing the game. How many outs are there, what inning are you in, who is the hitter at the plate, what is the score, etc. are variables to consider when determining if a steal attempt is worth the risk. In addition, a method to evaluate the risk of your players successfully stealing a base is PD + POP > ST.

ST= your players speed time from first to second base
PD= pitchers delivery time to the plate
POP= the catchers "POP" time to second base

For example,

ST: 3.75 s
PD: 1.85 s
POP: 2.2 s

In this situation, 1.85 + 2.2 > 3.75, the player has a high success probability of stealing the base- all other variables considered.

ST: 4.12 s
PD: 1.85 s
POP: 2.2 s

In this situation, 1.85 + 2.2 > 4.12, the player has a marginal success probability of stealing this base- all other variables considered. If the players speed time is anything over 4.12 s in this situation, it may not be worth the risk of stealing the base and other methods (bunting, hit-and-run, etc.) may become a better option.

So, how do we collect the data and what does it tell us?

ST= set up an orange cone on first base that is equal to the general lead a player should take on first base. Have the player position is right foot even with the cone at the start. When the player is ready, have him make a steal attempt. You will have a stop watch and start the timer when he makes his first move toward 2nd base. The times should be recorded in a notebook and be available at all games as reference. Anything 3.75 s or less at the high school level is good and will likely result in a successful steal attempt of 2nd base on most pitchers/catchers. Times of 3.3-3.4s should have the open steal option as few catchers/pitchers can beat this time. Instead pitchers will vary their looks and throws to first to slow this runner down.

As with your players, it is a good idea to chart the same times for your opponents during the game. Attempt to get data on the opponents runners as it will be valuable in your own defensive strategy.

PD= this data is collected when the pitcher is in the stretch position. After his hands come set, he will make a move toward home plate to deliver the ball. As soon as he starts the move toward home plate, you start the stop watch. When the ball reaches the catchers glove, you stop the stop watch. The time is charted during a game to evaluate delivery times of different pitches i.e. fastball, curve ball, change up, etc. This is done during the game and communicated to the players and coaches. Anything 1.65s or slower is a prime candidate to steal on. Most pitchers don't understand their own delivery speed and thus may aid your steal attempt by being slow to the plate. When you begin to advance bases, the pitcher will likely respond by hurrying his move to the plate, thus disrupting his rhythm. This will give the offensive team the advantage.

Don't forget to acquire this data for your pitchers. Having an understanding of your pitchers delivery times and subsequent vulnerability to the steal will be valuable in your own defensive strategy.

POP= the catchers ability to throw runners out is a valuable defensive tool. The POP time for catchers communicates the ability of a catcher to receive the throw from the pitcher and transition his body into throwing position, as well as the strength of his throwing arm. The POP time is collected by starting the stop watch when the ball hits the catchers glove and is stopped when the ball hits the glove of the player receiving the throw at 2nd base. A good high school and college POP time is 2.2s or less to 2nd base.

Gather the same POP data on your teams catcher as it will be valuable to your own defensive strategy.

When you get a complete picture on the pitchers delivery time to the plate combined with the catchers POP time to second, and compare this information to your individual players steal time you are in a good position to evaluate the risk of having a successful steal attempt.

Coaches, carry a stop watch to every game and practice. Charting this information for your offense and defense will improve your ability to make decisions that can impact the games outcome.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Dealing with stress in a pressure situation

During my playing and coaching career, I can remember being faced with hundreds of pressure situations; hitting against the top pitcher in our league, coming to bat with bases loaded and the winning run on second base, deciding whether to intentionally walk a hitter in a tight game, watching a pitcher struggle to get the final out in a state championship game that we are winning, etc. It knots up my stomach just thinking about them again.

These type of pressure situations can cause stress which inhibits performance. So the coach must train the player to deal with the pressure using various techniques to neutralize the effects of stress that will lead to improved performance. I have found 3 techniques that seem to work extremely well to relieve the stress of a pressure situation and therefor creating an opportunity for the athlete to perform. They can be used independently or in conjunction with each other. What ever works for you and your players.

Technique 1: Smile. It sounds funny and when first introduced may come across as corny, however I have seen this work time-and-time again. Smiling relieves stress. So when you or your player finds themselves in a situation where they feel all eyes are on them...smile.

Technique 2: Take a deep breadth. In from the nose, out from the mouth. The exhale causes a relaxation to occur in the major muscles of the body. This relaxation in the midst of competition allows for speed, quickness, and control; All key to executing a skill in a high pressure environment.

Technique 3: Go through your routine. The familiar is always more certain then the unexpected. Having a pregame routine, a pre-at-bat routine, a pre-pitch routine, etc. will settle you into the moment for optimal performance. Learn your routine or develop one to aid you in those pressure situations you may find yourself in.

These are all great techniques to use when you find yourself feeling the stress of being in a high pressure situation. Playing competitive sports is filled with these type moments that can't be avoided. They come with the territory. An even better strategy for managing these situations and increasing the probability of success occurs prior to the start of the event. They are preparation and visualization.

Some aspects of your workouts should consist of a series of "game speed" and "game situation" exercises that mirror various moments where execution of a skill is critical to the outcome of the game. The more you and your players have performed a skill in a "game-like" situation the more confidence each will have. Preparation builds confidence, confidence neutralizes pressure and re-labels it as routine.

The other, less taught, strategy for increasing success in a pressure situation is visualization. High performance athletes are taught to imagine the successful execution of a skill prior to engaging in the activity. After the mind has completed visualizing the event, the body simply follows the path laid out by the mind. Visualization takes discipline and practice but is a critical element to successfully maneuvering through high pressure moments.

There is no avoiding pressure in sporting events. Pressure is simply the emotional influence of the event on the body. The bodies reaction to the pressure is STRESS. These techniques aid in reducing stress. We don't have control over the pressure however we can manage the stress. Use these techniques and your performance will improve.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Get to second base and score more runs

Part of my game plan entering into any league or tournament is to score at least 6 runs per game. A critical element to the teams ability to attain this production mark is their ability to get to second base quickly. If you think about it, a runner on 2nd is only one hit away from scoring whereas a runner on 1st is either two hits away or needs for the hitter to drive the ball to the wall for him to score. In the next few moments, I will provide you with evidence on the scoring percentages for all the bases with varying number of outs in an inning, as well as provide different methods for advancing the base. One thing is clear, if you can't get to second base, you will have difficulty scoring.

The scoring percentages below are based on more than 60 years and thousands of major-league baseball games. We can make the assumption that they will be reasonably similar for our high school programs.

Scoring Percentages

Runner on 1st
w/ 0 outs = 43%
w/ 1 out = 29%
w/ 2 outs = 14%

Runner on 2nd
w/ 0 outs = 60%
w/ 1 out = 45%
w/ 2 outs = 26%

Runner on 3rd
w/ 0 outs = 70%
w/ 1 out = 54%
w/ 2 outs = 32%

Goal is to get to 2nd base or beyond with 0 or 1 out. The likelihood of scoring is significantly high and can impact a game.

A runner can get to second base a number of ways:

  1. Extra base hit (double, triple, etc.)
  2. Steal
  3. Hit-and-run
  4. Sacrafice bunt
  5. Passed ball
  6. Balk
  7. Error

My approach has always been to acquire 2nd base based on the players ability to execute the skill in the order above. For example, I would evaluate the players ability to steal the base ahead of a decision to sacrafice bunt and give up an out. The bottom two elements, I have little control over.

The scoring percentage on 3rd base is obviously higher and a decision to advance from 2nd to 3rd base should be weighed against the risk of the attempt. A runner advancing from 2nd to 3rd on a steal with 1 or 2 outs may not be worth the risk- depending on the game situation. The main point of this post is to communicat the important for your players to drive toward second base early using varying methods.

Get to second base and score more runs.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Don't swing at the first pitch

At the high school level, less than 50% of pitchers throw a strike on the first pitch. A lot of hitters make the mistake of being too aggressive at the plate and swing at the first pitch- getting themselves out 81% of the time. Every coach has communicated to their players the need to be patient at the plate however few coaches have actually explained the strategy behind being patient, what do we hope to accomplish, how does the hitter/team benefit, and what are the situations when you would deviate from this approach. The text on this page will provide some answers to those questions. My hope is after reading this posting, you will understand patience and how the approach WILL result in improved success every at bat.

What if I told you that statistics show that you have a better chance of getting a hit on an 0-1 pitch rather than on an 0-0 pitch. Would that surprise you? I bet it would. Well, it's TRUE. There are 4 key reasons for not swinging on the first pitch: 1) starting pitchers will throw more pitches when teams commit to taking the first pitch, 2) allows for coaches to advance base runners, 3) permits the hitter to get timing on pitchers and see all pitches, and 4) assists the hitter to work toward a more favorable count. Let me explain each.

1. Starting pitchers will throw more pitches: If we can cause the starting pitcher to throw more pitches, we can reduce the number of innings he will be able to throw. In addition, as the pitcher fatigues, he will make less quality pitches resulting in an improved ability to drive the count in the hitters favor.

2. Allows coaches to advance base runners: Advancing base runners to second base is critical to scoring runs. If you think about it, a runner on 2nd is only one hit away from scoring whereas a runner on 1st is either two hits away or needs for the hitter to drive the ball to the wall for him to score. Probability of scoring from 2nd with no outs is 40% higher than scoring from 1st with no outs. Probability of scoring from 2nd with one out is 55% higher than scoring from 1st with one out. Probability of scoring from 2nd with two outs is 85% higher than scoring from 1st with two outs. Taking the first pitch allows for the coaches to steal 2nd or advance the runners via the bunt or hit-and-run play.

3. Permits hitters to get timing on pitchers and see all pitches: An important factor in hitting a pitcher is getting your timing. One way to improve your ability to time a pitcher is to see more pitches. The deeper you get into a count the more opportunity you have to get your timing. Also, the more pitches the pitcher throws to you AND your teammates increases the teams ability to see all his pitches (fastball, curve, slider, change up, etc.) and to uncover patterns for throwing certain pitches. For example, if over the course of the game you discover that the pitcher always follows his curve ball with a fastball, then the team can anticipate/predict the tendencies and use this to the hitters advantage. This can only occur if the hitters are patient and fight the urge to go after the first pitch.

4. Work toward a more favorable count: According to a study of Division I baseball for 5 years, the batting average on the first pitch, or 0-0 count, is .186. The batting average on the 0-1 count is .199. Below I have noted the Batting Averages on Specific Counts:

Count/ Batting Average

0-2/ .118
1-2/ .151

2-2/ .169

0-0/ .186

3-2/ .192

0-1/ .199

3-0/ .267

1-1/ .269

2-1/ .290

3-1/ .329

2-0/ .342

1-0/ .386

As noted earlier, with pitchers throwing less than 50% strikes on the first pitch, the percentages are in the hitters favor that the pitch will be a ball- thus increasing the chances of getting a hit- when they take the first pitch. In future blogs, I will explain how working the count allows the hitter to better predict/anticipate certain pitch types and locations. Once a hitter can anticipate and predict he immediately increases his ability to have a successful at-bat. Stay tuned for that discussion.

Exception: An exception to the "take the first pitch" rule is when you have a control pitcher on the mound that has EARNED the right for us to swing at the first pitch. A pitcher that consistently throws first-pitch-strike will cause the hitter to adjust his approach and look to go after the first pitch (only if it is a fastball- talk about that in the future). If we allow the pitcher to consistently get ahead of us by taking the first pitch then we are working from behind and the percentages are not in our favor. Note that the pitcher has to earn the right for us to change our approach to go after the first pitch. This is typically charted by the coaches and the adjustment is generally made in the 3-4th inning after going through the line-up once.

Summary: At the major league level, the average player sees 3.85 pitches per at-bat. Data has shown that there is a direct correlation between the number of pitches a hitter sees per at-bat and his batting average. Acknowledging this fact, my teams have always had a goal to get to the 4th pitch every time up to the plate. Sometimes we will get to 3 pitches and other times we will get to 6 pitches. What I have found is that by targeting 4 pitches we can improve our on-base percentage, increase our batting average, and impact the number of runs we will score per game. All of which impacts the game positively for us.

So, take a patient yet aggressive approach at the plate. Don't swing at the first pitch to; cause the pitcher to throw more pitches; allow your coaches to advance the base runners, permit you to get your timing, see all his pitches, and discover tendencies; work toward a more favorable count while recognizing that the pitcher has to earn the right for us to change our approach and go after a first pitch (fastball-strike).

Best advice I ever got

When I was a young student athlete, I was given advice on everything from what to eat, how to workout to gain a competitive advantage, what coaches are looking for at the next level, etc. All great information however most was forgotten just after it swept through my ears. However, there is a single piece of advice that has remained with me to this day and I would like to pass it on to you. This golden nugget of information is so impacting that I use it in other aspects of my life...even to this day. Are you ready...?

I will never forget who gave this information to me and where I was when I received it. I will reserve the entire story for another time. The advice came from Coach Beetle Bailey in 1988. Coach Bailey was the hitting coach for LSU at the time. I'm not sure that I can recount his resume accurately but just know that during his tenure, LSU won 5 National Championships in 10 years. Not only was he a great baseball coach with teams and players succeeding as a result of his influence but his personal accomplishments seemed even bigger. So none-the-less when Coach Bailey spoke people listened.

As I lay out the advice to you, I will attempt to use the exact words from Coach Bailey.

Advice: At some point today, tomorrow, next week, next year, someone will give you some information that will change your life. It will make you a better student, a better athlete/baseball player, a better son/daughter/father/mother/friend, a better human being. Will you be listening...