Friday, February 27, 2015

Have a Plan

                                                          (Photo credit: maxpreps.com)

Frequently hitting coaches talk about having a plan. We mention scouting reports and discuss "being committed to a pitch," but what does that mean? What does success look like when a hitter has a good plan?

Let's imagine that we have just discussed a scouting report with our team. Said pitcher is 84-86 with an above average slider and above average change up. He throws all three for strikes, including terrific off-speed command. He throws 50% off-speed pitches!

If you believe "the best way to hit the off-speed is to not miss the fastball..." you are disabling your hitters.

At the highest college levels, pitchers can flat pitch. We are talking mid-range and low-level velocity guys. In D1 this would equate to RHPs who are 86-88 (or lower) with plus off-speed command, or LHPs at 84-86 (or lower) who command multiple pitches.

When pitchers can locate sliders and change-ups down in the zone on both sides of the plate, and they have decent to good movement, it doesn't matter if your fastball command is average. Hitters cannot succeed swinging at fastballs that are balls and taking off-speed pitches for strikes. Every at bat the hitter will find himself 1-2 or 2-2.

When advanced college hitters have a plan, their execution of that plan can be seen in the body language with which they take pitches. A hitter takes a fastball for a strike with strong body language, and then he rips a single on an 0-1 slider away? Probably was sitting on the slider.

Wipe-out off-speed is thrown for strikes in the big leagues, especially from aces and shutdown relievers. In college, pitchers throw shorter breaking sliders and change-ups that they can command and simply get off of the barrel. When a college staff has only 4-6 good pitchers, that coaching staff wants to ride their horses deep into games. To pitch into the seventh and eighth innings, pitchers develop off-speed pitches that they can command, not just control, just enough to get hitters confused, caught between pitches, or to get the ball off of the barrel.

It takes toughness to beat pitchers who can really pitch. A hitter's body language is contagious. Attitudes need to be worth catching.

A hitter with a good plan, aggressive to an off-speed pitch, doesn't kick the dirt when he takes a fastball. Even when he "guessed" incorrectly, he calmly and aggressively sets his sights on another pitch, or timing or rhythm. Perhaps he is looking for a fastball, or perhaps for the off-speed again, since pitchers rarely throw two quality fastballs in a row (unless they blow smoke).

Mid-range and low-level velocity guys have to PITCH. If you want to merely eat mediocre pitchers alive and then get carved up by the good ones, sit on fastballs until you die. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

567's and the Great Debate: Should Hitters Hit Ground Balls or Fly Balls?

                                                       (Credit: midwestsportsfans.com)

There are so many mis-teaches in hitting, and coaching players to hit predominantly ground balls is one of them. This is micro-management at its worst. Teaching players to make sure they put the ball in play exhibits a lack of trust in their ability, or in our ability to understand hitting and teach it the proper way.

Let's get this straight.

College baseball statistical programs log all extra base hits as line drives. In programs like Statcrew and Dakstats, fly balls are outs. All hits are categorized in college as only line drives or ground balls. This is absolutely asinine.

MLB gets it right. Their stat programs, due in large part to a financial capacity to have REAL HUMANS track every pitch and evaluate each contact, note that HRs can be both fly balls and line drives (depending on how hard a hitter hits the ball, and at what angle.)

At Lee University, we call these angles "ball flights," and we grade and value each ball flight separately, giving our hitters great perspective on what they hit, and what we want them to hit.

We encourage our hitters to hit 5's, 6's, and 7's. We call them 567's. To hit a ball at this ball flight requires a certain approach, an aggressive swing, and contact to be made at the front of the hitting zone (unless the ball is scorched backside).

A "1" flight is a ball hit sharply into the ground, first bouncing near home plate. A "9" is the equal, but opposite angle, hit straight up into the air.

A "4" flight is a hard contact that bounces in the back infield dirt. A "5" is perfectly squared up and cuts straight through the air. A "6" has backspin and "extra-base energy" (lots of doubles and triples here). Most HR's are "7" flight, though our strongest players can crush an "8" flight and have it sail out of the yard. 567's win. They require aggressiveness in approach and swing.

Truly, the line in assessing the difference between a line drive and fly ball is blurred, and subjective. We consider a "7" flight to be a fly ball, but to be the type of fly ball that we want to hit.

Here's where coaches get hitters jacked up: when you take the improperly sorted college flyball/groundball ratio data and impart those batting averages and out percentages onto your hitters, you communicate to your hitters that hitting ground balls is beneficial to them personally, and to the team. "Ground balls good. Fly balls bad."


As you can see from the table below, the batting average (approximately the 14th most important hitting statistic) on GBs is higher than that on FBs in the big leagues since 2002, but the ISO power (SLG% - AVG: a terrific sabermetric for evaluating a hitter's juice) is SIGNIFICANTLY greater on FBs than GBs.

TypeAVGISOwOBA
GB.239.020.220
LD.685.190.684
FB.207.378.335

Our final misstep in the coaching puzzle is the type of linear hand path/lacking separation/pushing the barrel forward to ensure we make contact swing that coaches dis-empower their hitters with.

Hit the ball on the ground is a misnomer. I don't care if you run a 6.5 60. Hitting 567's will result in having an ability to drive in runners from first, create a higher slugging percentage, higher OPS, more runs created, and make a greater impact on the game.

For more statistical data on LDs, GBs, FBs, go here.

At times, we demand our hitters make in-game adjustments. Windy day? Let's focus on 456's. Hitting is all about adjustment making, as is coaching. Teaching our hitters that hitting the right type of fly balls is advantageous is an adjustment that many programs can make.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

How to Properly Evaluate an At-Bat

(Credit: Cleveland Daily Banner)

After every turn at-bat a hitter grades his own performance. It seems fair to assess that much of the time this assessment is emotional. A hitter may acknowledge frustration with a grind of the teeth or an angry grunt. Success is found with a fist pump or an aggressive shout.

Upon returning to the dugout, every hitter has an opportunity to digest the at-bat. Are his thoughts on controllables? Uncontrollables? Does he know why he hit the ball hard? Does he know why he feels tense or loose?  Without an idea of how to grade an at-bat, hitters are left with nothing but emotions, inevitably clinking up toward the top of a dangerous coaster that speeds downward with no control. Crash and burn.

On Opening Weekend, a coach might return home wondering what each hitter thought about their first opportunities. Each weekend, only a hand full of the hitters likely feel as though they achieved a desired result.

But what are the best measures of a hitter's success? Remember that, at Lee University, we measure OPS, QABs, 567s and base running with our Base Running Efficiency chart. While those are process-oriented within a season, they are still result-oriented in relation to at-bats. That's not good enough.

Here are a few ways to grade your at-bats. Try them this week.

On a scale of 1 (not at all/wow that sucked) to 10 (outstanding/excellent/superlative), honestly assess each question.

1.) How well did you see the baseball?

  If you aren't seeing the ball clearly and easily, you are likely tense, not breathing properly or need to have your vision checked.

2.) How in control of myself was I?

You cannot control your performance until you are in control of yourself. - Ken Ravizza

3.) How good to hit was the pitch at which I swung?

  This question could be preceded by, "did I get a good pitch to hit?"

4.)  How hard did I hit the ball?

  When swinging, consistently hitting the ball hard is the goal. No less, no more.

5.) How high was my competitive energy during the at bat?

  Every coach in the country wants a team full of great competitors. Every teammate in the country wants to know his teammates will fight like mad to win.