Hitting Approach-How to coach the approach
Every hitting coach I ever talk to uses the term “approach” when talking to a player about hitting. Almost every player I talk to about hitting has no idea what that coach is talking about until you start asking them questions. This post is going to help coaches teach a hitting approach and get players to understand what they are learning.
What is a Hitting Approach?
The first thing we have to do is define a hitting approach. A hitting approach is simply the plan that the batter is going to use during an at-bat. Things like offensive philosophy, where a batter is going to position themselves, what pitch the batter is looking for and where the batter wants to hit the ball are all things that make up their approach.
A hitting approach is flexible. Meaning that what your approach is during your first at bat of a game may not be what it is in the 3rd at-bat of the same game. An approach is so flexible in fact that it may change from one pitch to the next during an at-bat. As the situation changes so must the approach.
An example would be a batter comes up to the plate with a runner on first base. On the second pitch of the at-bat, the base runner steals second base. The hitter just went from being a mover to being a producer. This changes where they are trying to place the ball and what pitch they are probably looking to hit thus changing the approach.
That brings us to the hard part, how do we teach such a flexible thing to kids. As a coach, I believe in keeping things simple. Start with explaining the fundamentals of offensive situational baseball. Tell your players about the three things that every hitter can be. An “on-er,” someone that gets on base. Or a “mover,” someone who pushes the runner into scoring position. Finally a “producer,” a hitter that drives in runners from scoring position.
Which one of those three a batter is will not be defined by their position in the batting order but by the situation of the baseball game. If your four-hitter is leading off the second inning, he is an “on-er.” His job is to get on base, put pressure on the defense and help the team.
Understanding what their mission is at the plate will help a player start to build their approach. The player also has to know how they are going to use their strengths as a hitter to battle the strengths of the pitcher. Your cleanup hitter is probably not going to be bunting to move a runner over even if they are in the role of a “mover.” When your number 9 hitter is in the position of “producer,” they may be looking to get a safety squeeze down to drive a run in.
I know me. Do you know me?
Starting with the basics a player needs to know themselves. Some hitters are very confident, they know the strike zone and know they can make contact on most pitches. Other players aren’t so sure they, maybe they swing and miss a lot or have a weakness for chasing that ball at the eyes, so many kids have a hard time laying off.
As coaches, we have to help each player develop their approach accordingly. I remember struggling my sophomore year in high school. My coach pulled me to the side and said,”You know you get three strikes every at-bat don’t you?” He then told me that I should never come back to the bench unless I put a ball in play or swung and missed three times. That was my approach, swing and hope you make contact. Not the best approach but that’s what the coach wanted until I snapped out of my funk.
Take care when coaching
We use phrases as coaches to get our players to do things. We have to be careful who we are saying certain things too. You don’t want to confuse a player by contradicting their approach with a coaching phrase.
Some of the phrases I hear are, “box it up,” or “see ball hit ball.” To me, that means two different things. “Box it up” means be selective pick a zone and don’t swing unless it is in that zone. Whereas “see ball hit ball” means if you pick the ball up early swing at it.
What are we talking about?
So now we have an understanding of what we want to teach when we are talking about a hitting approach. How are we going to get our players to understand what we are teaching them?
The first thing we need to explain is that an approach is a plan and like Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Our hitters need to know that their plan is going to change. They need to take the time to think through an at-bat.
In youth baseball, I group everything into four levels. You have straight instructional baseball. This level includes T-ball and coach pitch into the first year of kid pitch. Then there are transitional baseball beginners; this level would be kid pitch baseball on the smaller fields including modified fields. Players then move up to advanced transitional baseball. This level is when the players are on a full sized diamond for the first couple of years mostly middle school, Babe Ruth and Senior League type baseball. Finally, there is competitive baseball. Competitive baseball I would consider to be anything from J.V. through varsity high school, 16u and up travel teams and Legion baseball.
When you are talking to younger players at the instructional levels, they can have a simple plan.
With T-ball players, it may be as simple as explaining that the where they stand in the box affects where they are going to hit the ball. For a player that is facing live pitching for the first time, they may want to deal with the speed of the pitch. With a fast pitcher, they may want to go into the box and think to get my foot down early and stay middle/opposite. They can be successful as long as they have a plan and know what that plan is.
Transitional baseball beginners
The approaches we teach players as transitional baseball beginners are a little more complicated but need to be widdled down to their simplest form for each pitch of each at-bat. There are more situations in a baseball game the older a player gets. The approach gets complicated only to the degree that you have to have more than one approach so you can hit in all situations.
Transitional baseball beginners are dealing with stealing and pitchers and catchers that are more consistent. Pitchers are going to throw strikes, and runners are going to change positions on the field during an at-bat. Players need to be able to adjust their approach based on the situation.
Younger players are less likely to think along with the game. They are learning and don’t have years of experiences to draw upon for guidance. As a coach, you are going to want to make sure you have a system in place to help that during an at-bat or a game when circumstances change.
When there are runners on base, you have signs that you give to a batter to let them know if you want them to bunt or hit and run. Therefore, you should have an indication to change their approach. The signs don’t have to be complicated you don’t even have to hide them. Give a verbal command like, “Now you’re a mover.” If your players understand offensive situational baseball, they will be able to understand you and what the team needs their approach to be.
Advanced transitional baseball
Advanced transitional baseball brings on a new set of challenges. Though a lot of coaches treat this level as competitive, I still consider it an instructional level. At this level, you are still teaching a lot about the game of baseball. The introduction of leading is a new concept for some players at this level. Also, the size of the field changes what players can do with the ball on offense and defense.
A player’s hitting approach is going to be modified as well. Hitters may be changing their primary roles as they move up. A kid who was hitting 220-foot home runs the year before may now be asked to drive the ball in the gap to the opposite field because that same ball is a 220-foot pop-up now. So being a producer has gone from meaning hit a home run to get a base hit.
Players at this level should be asked to think along with the game more as well. As a coach, you are going to review a player’s decisions more as opposed to helping them make the decision. By letting them make the decision, you assist the player to learn to deal with critical thinking in high-pressure situations. We can do it for them or teach them to do it for themselves.
Now the fun part, competitive baseball. At this level, a player must know how to adjust their hitting approach between pitches or even have two approaches for a pitch. That is an odd concept for some players.
A player is stepping into a situation where pitchers can throw multiple pitches to several locations in almost any situation. I like to think of this as logic and “what if” preparation.
Logic says the pitcher is going to try to get ahead early, so I am thinking fastball middle away. What if he decides that I am looking fastball, so he is going to throw a curve. Now I have an approach for both. I should be able to pick up a high school curve from release, so there is plenty of time to adjust if I have a plan before the pitcher releases the ball.
The key to teaching hitting approach at any level is going to depend on the player’s knowledge of the game and the coach’s ability to communicate the team’s needs to that player. With the combination of those two things, players will become better hitters, and better hitters make better teams.
Hopefully, you have a better understanding of how to “Coach the Approach.” I would love to hear back from you after you apply this at any level. I am sure that it won’t take long for the results to show.