A team that can execute sound, intelligent situational hitting will be a successful team. They move runners into scoring position and drive them in. To be a good situational hitting team the coach has to develop the proper mindset with his players. There is little room for “me, me” selfish players. Hitters must often give themselves up for the chance to score a run.
Batting averages, whoa. Put those batting averages down. There are many more important elements of the game and these statistics often put unjustified pressure on the kids. Batting averages should not be the measure of a young player’s effectiveness or self-worth. They don’t have a lot to do with winning. Instead, look at how your players perform in certain situations with men on base. Do they move the runner over on a consistent basis? Do they execute the plays their coach calls for? Do they have consistent quality at bats? Do they hit the ball hard?
RUNNER ON SECOND
Let’s look at a game situation. The game is close and is being pitched well by both pitchers. Runs are at a premium. Your number 3 hitter leads off with a double. (It is very common for a hitter to be stranded when he leads off an inning with a double.) You decide not to bunt the 4 hitter. You would like to try for a big inning and yet you know it is imperative that the runner be moved over to third base. The infield is playing at normal depth. The hitter’s priority is to move the runner to third base. He must not think of personal batting averages. A fly ball probably won’t get it done. A ground ball to the third baseman or shortstop won’t do it. He must think of hitting the ball hard on the ground to the right side of the infield. The key to this approach is for him to look for his pitch early in the count. He should look for a pitch on the outside third of the plate. Look for location rather than type of pitch (fast ball-curve ball). With 2 strikes the pitcher has the advantage and the hitter is more likely to fail.
The most important thought for the hitter is to get a good pitch to hit to the opposite field. Try to hit the inside portion of the ball, not behind or around it. He should look for the outside pitch until he has two strikes and then only concentrate on hitting the ball hard. If the ball goes through into the outfield, so much the better. But by hitting the ball on the ground to the right side, he will move the runner over to third base even if the defense throws him out.
RUNNER ON THIRD
The hitter grounded out to the second baseman and moved the runner over to third. He did his job. The ball could have easily gone through into the outfield. It was a win, win situation. Now there is one out and the runner is on third. The 5 hitter is up. What is his job and what is his mental approach? This is always a crucial situation in a game. The objective is to attempt to take advantage of every one of these scoring opportunities. Again, forget batting averages; think about scoring the runner. It is very important to have a quality at bat in this situation. The hitter should look for a pitch that he can drive into the middle of the diamond.
If the infielders are playing in, he looks for a pitch that is up in the strike zone and is a pitch than can be driven into the “v” in the outfield (area between the left fielder and right fielder). The hitter has to know what kind of pitch he can hit for a fly ball, usually a pitch up in the strike zone, but always a pitch of his preference.
If the infielders are playing back, the hitter now has the option of hitting a ground ball in the middle of the infield. The hitter must make sure it is a pitch he can drive.
A third but not necessarily better option with the infielders playing in is to have the runner on third break for home on bat contact. This tactic should only be used with one out in a tie game or maybe when you are desperate to score.
The third base coach should verbally communicate all options with the hitter and runner because the location of the infielders could change on each pitch.
Be aware that good teams teach their middle infielders to play at a depth that is best for each player’s arm strength.
The last option of course is a base hit, but the hitter should be most concerned about all other options to be a good situational team hitter.
THE MENTALITY OF THE SACRIFICE BUNT
From Little League to the Major Leagues all championship teams bunt and bunt well. The sacrifice bunt is a great weapon in certain situations and when called upon every player should be able to execute the play.
First, the mind set of the sacrifice bunt: the player should understand that he is up there to give himself up and not attempt to bunt for a base hit. It is up to the coach to instill that philosophy in his players. Many young players don’t like the sacrifice bunt because it takes the bat out of their hands and doesn’t give them a chance to hit. The coach should explain to his players that baseball is a team game and personal statistics don’t come first. (It is a good idea to have all the players congratulate the hitter who executes a successful sacrifice bunt. That reinforces team play and demonstrates the importance of the sacrifice.)
We teach the” pivot” method over the square around method. The pivot technique gives the player more mobility. It takes a little more time to learn but is superior. Have the hitter get in his batting stance but move up in the batter’s box so that his front foot is even or slightly ahead of the plate. This cuts down on balls bunted foul. As he pivots around, he moves his rear foot slightly closer to the plate than his front foot. Both feet should be open and toes pointing at the pitcher. He should bend his knees slightly and move both hands up the bat. His backside should be under his shoulders. Hold the bat level or bat head slightly higher than the hands; (not 45 degrees.) Holding the bat loosely helps deaden the ball.
The batter should “show” bunt early (at approximately the time when the pitcher comes set) and then make every attempt to bunt the ball down one of the lines. Showing bunt too late makes it difficult to be successful. A sacrifice bunt is not a secret.
If the pitch is an outside strike, bunt the ball down the first base line. (RH Hitter) If the ball is inside, bunt it down the third base line. Make every effort not to bunt the ball back at the pitcher.
To bunt the ball down the first base line, point the knob of the bat in the direction of the third base bag. To bunt the ball down the third base line, point the head of the bat at the first base bag. Do not drop the bat head for any reason. That will cause the hitter to pop up and destroy any chance of moving the runner over. Instead of dropping the bat head if the pitch is low, the hitter should bend his knees until he is low enough to get the bunt down, like an elevator going down. Bunt strikes only. If the pitcher walks the hitter, so much the better. Bunt the ball before you run. It is a mistake to bunt and run at the same time. Let the ball hit the bat. Don’t go out and get the ball. It will come into the hitting zone. Concentrate and try to see the ball hit the bat. Bunt the top half of the ball. That will help prevent pop-ups.
The two most common bunting mistakes are reaching out to bunt the ball and dropping the bat head on a low pitch. You see these errors even on major league teams. Practice bunting a great deal every day early in the season and then have your hitters bunt the ball 3 or 4 times in every batting practice before they hit. Bunting in batting practice before the players hit has a two-fold purpose. It practices the skill of bunting and it gets the hitters used to tracking the ball.
SWING AT FASTBALL STRIKES
What is the hallmark of a good hitter? Good hitters are aggressive and they swing at strikes. They usually don’t swing at bad pitches and are seldom fooled. They have developed the aptitude to swing at strikes. Looking for and getting a pitch the hitter can “drive” is the objective of almost every at bat. The process of getting good pitches to hit is understanding the fastball counts, awareness of the location of the hitter’s “best pitch”, and gathered information on the pitcher.
What are fastball counts? They are the counts in an at bat when the hitter can reasonably expect a fastball from the pitcher. The fastball counts are 0–0, 1–0, 2–0, 2–1, 3–0 and 3–1. Six situations when the probabilities are the pitcher will come to the plate with a fastball.
0–0 is a unique count. Every pitching coach drums into his pitchers, “Get strike one.” So the hitter can expect to see a pitch in the strike zone. He can look for “ his pitch.” On the other hand, major league statistics reveal that hitters who swing at first pitches are not often successful. What to do? Let the situation dictate whether or not to swing at the 0–0 pitch. The score, number of outs, the pitcher, the pitcher’s tendencies, the batter’s previous success with that pitcher, base runners and the primary factor- the pitch must be one the hitter can hit hard.
2–0 and 3–1
The coach usually decides if the hitter swings at the 3–0 pitch. 2–0 and 3–1 are the counts where the pitcher cannot get back to even with just one pitch. This is when he must throw a strike, almost always a fastball. Bases on balls kill the defense.
This is the time when the hitter can really ‘zone’ in on his pitch. He can afford to take a strike out of his zone because the pitcher can‘t get back to even in the count with one pitch. He can shrink the strike zone and look for one pitch and one pitch only. He has his choice of strikes.
ONE GOOD PITCH
A hitter can usually expect only one good pitch in each at bat, probably not two. How well he does with that one pitch generally determines his fate. A good hitter knows his favorite area of the strike zone, the location where he can consistently drive the ball on a line, the area on the plate where he has the most confidence. It may be a pitch middle in, a knee high inside pitch or a high strike. (All hitters should be able to hit a fastball belt high down the middle.)
LET YOUR BODY TELL YOU WHEN TO SWING
The skillful hitter has developed this knowledge through his kinesthetic body awareness. Awareness that springs from long hours of consistently good batting practice and capable coaching. He has refined his batting stroke to the point where his body tells him if the pitch is a strike or a ball. He knows as the ball approaches the plate if his batting stance has to “break down” in order for him to hit the pitch hard. That is why there are so many check swings during professional games. The hitters start their stride and hands and at the last millisecond stop the swing if that pitch is not one they like.
THE VALUE OF GOOD COACHING
The skillful hitter gathers all the information he can about the pitcher. This is where the great coaches shine. The coach will discuss a pitcher’s game-time tendencies and pitches. What he may throw in a certain count, what types of pitches he throws and how his fastball moves; everything he knows concerning the pitcher’s history. The coach will discuss situations during the on-going process of the game. He will use the previous at bat as a teaching tool. It is necessary for the hitter to know what a pitcher’s best pitch is; his “out pitch.” He must know what the pitcher’s best pitch is that day and what the pitcher’s best pitch is to him that day. Is he getting his breaking pitch over for strikes? Does his change up have fast ball arm speed? It all boils down to confidence. You start with talent. Thorough and diligent practice increases the skill level and knowledge increases confidence and a better chance for success. Be aggressive and hit your pitch. Don’t let it go by. Baseball like life has an aversion for wasted opportunities.
We feel the most important thing for young hitters is to be aggressive. In developing this mindset the coach should not criticize his hitters when they make an aggressive mistake. They are going to swing at pitches out of the strike zone. Even professional hitters do. They should however, be reminded when they let a fastball strike go by without a swing. They should also understand that looking at strike 3 is a mistake by the hitter, not the umpire.
The squeeze bunt is a great offensive weapon if the players are well instructed and if it is used properly. The element of surprise makes it a great play if a team is ahead by a run or two. It is as important for the hitter to acknowledge the sign for the squeeze as it is for the runner on third to see the sign. Use a simple set of signals to accomplish this. As an example, as the runner comes in to third base, the coach holds up both hands. The runner then holds up his hands as he looks at the hitter. It simply appears to the defense that the coach is holding up the runner and not giving a special sign. The hitter must acknowledge this sign by rubbing the end of his bat. No theatrics here just rub the bat head. This is extremely simple and effective if done correctly. The runner now knows the hitter will not hang him out to dry. The play is on.
Remember that the hitter must bunt the ball. He does not have to be too fine with the location, just bunt it on the ground.
When does the runner sprint for home? We have seen this part of the squeeze misplayed many times. The runner sprints for home after he has taken his primary lead and the pitcher’s FRONT FOOT HITS THE GROUND. Not before.
Practice the squeeze bunt and don’t be afraid to use it in games. Remember the hitter does not ‘show’ bunt too early. The key is the pitcher’s front foot. Once that has planted he has committed and his arm action is at its peak.