Wisdom From The Coach: A Hitter’s Responsibility

In mid-January, I wrote a post on pitching.  Now that pitchers and catchers have reported, here’s something on hitting.  Somehow, being left-handed, my sequencing makes perfect sense …

With all it takes to make a great hitter, no one has ever been able to put it all together perfectly in a single book.  Oh, I often reference Ted Williams’ The Science of Hitting.  Usually, I reference Charlie Lau’s The Art of Hitting about the same time.  Williams was not only one of the top hitters (.344 lifetime, 521 home runs, OPS of 1.116, plus much more) of all time, but he understood what it took to be a great hitter.  He learned, taught, and practiced the craft.  Lau was a .255 hitter with a lifetime OPS of .683.  Two different hitters, two different approaches.  Science.  Art.  The debate rages.

Williams always said hitting was the singular most difficult thing to do in sports.  You know the cliché, “You have to try to square up a round ball on a round bat.”  And the hitter never knows if the pitcher is going to stick a fastball in his ear, snap off a nasty curve ball, or get him reaching after a changeup.

So I’m going to stick with the hitter’s main responsibilities, rather than get into the actual finer points of hitting.  Save that for another day.

As a hitter looks at the scoreboard and game situation, there are only three things he can truly look to accomplish:  A.) Get on.  B.) Get ‘em over.  C.) Get ‘em in.  Or get HIM over and get HIM in, depending upon how many are on base at the time.  A, B, and C are prioritized based on team need.

A.) Getting on base:  There are a number of ways to get on base.  You can reach on a hit or an error, a walk or a hit-by-pitch, as well as by catcher’s interference, a dropped third strike, or a fielder’s choice.  Scratch out the last three.  None are based on intent.  You might have to hustle on a dropped third strike.  Same thing on a fielder’s choice, which is not a good the optimum manner in which to reach base.  You’re giving up an out to be on base – simply trading places with a teammate – not good math.  And if you do hit into fielder’s choice, you better be faster/a better base runner than the man you replaced on the bases, or you’re actually hurting the club.

B.) Getting them/him over:  You would think that getting on base is always the best thing a hitter can do, and technically that’s probably right.  But it’s difficult to guarantee you can get on base.  The major league OBP by team ranged from Seattle’s .296 to the Cards’ .338.  You can often find success in getting a man to second by way of a sac bunt.  You can get a man from second to third with a ground ball to the right side or a sac bunt, and possibly, but not probably, by a long fly ball to right or right-center field.  If you are intentionally working to move a man up on the base paths, you are truly giving up the at-bat for the team.

It’s very seldom in the team’s best interest to give up one of its precious twenty-seven outs.  Sacrifice bunting is usually reserved for pitchers in today’s game.  In attempting to move a man up a base, the hit-and-run or base-hit bunt gives the offense a chance to get a two-for-one deal: a man on base, and a man moved up.  Finding a man who can handle the bat well enough to use these options is at a premium with any club.

C.) Getting them/him in:  Scoring runs is the bottom line on offense.  Good hitters salivate with men in scoring position.  To score a man from second or first, a hitter is going to have to get a base hit, barring something totally bizarre, like a two-base sacrifice fly.  It’s obviously easier to get a man in from third.  A deep fly ball will give you a sacrifice fly – the team gets a run and you get a ribbie and no at-bat to show for it.  You can hit an intentional ground ball with the infield playing back – we called that an “automatic” situation when I was coaching:  if you hit a ground ball anywhere but to the pitcher, you will automatically get the run in.

A squeeze bunt can get a man in from third, and there are two kinds of squeeze.  The “suicide” relies on the base runner leaving third early enough to get home on the bunt, and late enough so the pitcher can’t pitch out on the hitter.  The hitter must “down” the bunt – a pop-up will result in a double-play.  The main problem with a “suicide” is the communication between the third base coach, the hitter, and the base runner.  Any miscommunication, and the runner might be flying toward home with the batter swinging, which could be disastrous.

In today’s game, the “safety” squeeze is in vogue, and highly successful.  The Tampa Bay Rays have made it a regular part of their offensive arsenal, and it works quite effectively.  It’s often used with a right-handed hitter and a man on first.  The third baseman stays back in respect to the hitter, and the first baseman can’t charge the plate for fear of allowing his base runner a great jump and easy steal of second.   In the “safety” squeeze, the base runner isn’t trying to get a big jump from third.  He should be able to wait until the bunt is downed, and score with relative ease.

So, there are only three things a hitter can really do: become a base runner, move a runner or runners up, or knock a runner or runners in.  With a look at the scoreboard, knowledge of who’s pitching, or will be pitching for each team, and understanding where you are in the lineup, the situations can often appear obvious.  And it’s always better to score more runs while giving up fewer outs.  The devil is in the details of execution.

Wayne Tyson was a high school and community college baseball coach for 26 years including six years at Florida Air Academy. His FAA team won the Florida Class 3A State Championship in 1998 and was runner-up in 1999, when the team included freshman Prince Fielder. Wayne currently writes for Cowbell Clankers, the Aerys Sports home of the Tampa Bay Rays. Follow him on Twitter @WayneTyson11.

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