Breaking down hitters for pitch calling
By Derek Johnson
Associate Head Coach, Vanderbilt University
Pitch calling is definitely an art more than science. It is based on many factors which I will attempt to get to in a minute, but first and foremost calling the right pitch is about feel of the umpire, pitcher, situation of the game, who is hitting, and who might be hitting behind the current hitter. It is about the rhythm of the game, taking chances, guts, guile, and the right mentality. The first place to start is knowing the pitcher and what his strengths and weaknesses may be. From here, a basic plan is implemented on how the pitcher will attack a left-handed hitter and a right-handed hitter. This can include the basic pitches that the pitcher will throw, and possibly the type of count he may throw them in.
For example, the right-handed pitcher might backdoor his breaking ball when he is behind in the count to a left-handed hitter, while he may sweep and expand the breaking ball when ahead – important that these nuances are distinguished for catcher, pitcher and coach. It is important to know that this plan can and will change during the course of the year or perhaps game to game. It is up to the pitcher, catcher, and coach to decide what part of the plan is working during an outing and then have the wherewithal to make adjustments. Once the plan is established, efforts toward the hitter can be addressed.
Breaking down the hitter, in my opinion, is based upon three factors: Where he hits in the order, what type of swing/hitter he might be, and what swing mechanics will give clues as to how to get him out. Where the hitter hits in the order is an early indication of what is expected of him to generate team offense. Hitters 1-2 are generally speed guys who make contact, 3-4-5-6 are run producers, and 7-9 hitters are generally defensive players or bat handlers that may or may not be able to run. From here, general observation from batting practice, film, or even the first time through the order in the game will indicate what type of hitter we are dealing with. Pull contact, spray contact, pull with pop, spray with pop might be a way to classify hitters. Use whatever system you think fits with your everyday language.
If the pitcher and catcher know this hitter is classified as a pull hitter, it should become obvious that expanding the ball away and in can either make the hitter jam himself or “run out of bat” I’d say that a majority of college and high school hitters fall into this category as many have ‘around the ball” or hook/pull swings. So if the hitter is a pull hitter, I know that I can most likely get the hitter out with a ball that is outside and occasionally inside(jam). A spray type hitter generally is able to handle both sides of the plate fairly well. In this case, it becomes the pitcher’s job to use both sides of the plate AND change speeds so that rhythm is disrupted.
From here, mechanical parts of the swing can be addressed. First order for us is to check the stride. Many hitters now use an open stance (furthering the notion of becoming pull oriented) and many stride open instead of even. If that is the case, the outside pitch can be beneficial. If the hitter is ultra aggressive, he may “double tap” and dive into the plate, which will expose the hitter to being jammed. I also know that the ultra aggressive hitter has a tendency to drift to the front side, using momentum to hit into the baseball. This type of hitter is a “speed up, slow down” type of hitter where we want to further help draw the hitter forward and backwards with speed changes.
A barred front arm upon launch of the swing usually means a long, around the ball swing in which if our guy on the mound has decent velocity, we can usually jam this type of hitter. If a hitter crouches, he generally has to stand up to hit, which puts him in a position where he works against the ball going down (especially curveball and slider) and will chase the up ball. A tall hitter will have to tilt his barrel substantially to get to the low pitch, so sink and speed changes down are favorable. A hitter that fires his front hip early or pulls the front shoulder is an “out” away.
In game adjustments can be as simple or as complex you want to make it, but when defining what pitch to throw the question of is the hitter “on” the pitch or not is crucial. If he hitter is on the last pitch, we have three options:
- Same pitch, different side of the plate
- Same pitch, different speed
- Different pitch.
Determining whether the hitter is “on” is not easy. Body language of a take or a swing and a miss, the way they swung, direction of the batted ball, timing of the swing, and the count must all be calculated. For example, the hitter takes and then argues a borderline but obvious strike – I’m guessing he didn’t really see it, and I’m throwing it again. Ball fouled straight back – I’m going with one of our three choices.
Putting all of these factors together is not easy, but it can be trained and becomes easier in time. Always remember – the “wrong” pitch thrown with heart is much better than the “right” pitch without heart!