Knowing what’s coming
I was just reading one of Dave’s posts on the Girls Fastpitch Softball, and he hit on something that drives me crazy too: the way hitters will stand and watch good pitches go by for no reason.
Now, if you’re facing a pitcher throwing 65 mph with good movement and a change of speed, and you’re used to hitting 55 mph or less with little or no movement, it’s understandable that you might be a little overwhelmed. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about standing there taking perfectly good and hittable pitches coming in at a comfortable speed. It just makes no sense.
Now, I am an advocate of the Mike Epstein “get a good pitch to hit” philosophy. With a 0-0 count there’s no need to swing at a pitch you don’t hit particularly well. But if you let yourself get into a hole with an 0-2 count, your odds of getting a good hit decrease dramatically. Even MLB players hit sub-.200 with an 0-2 count, and they’re theoretically the best in the world.
Younger pitchers (and their coaches) tend to be obsessed with throwing strikes. Throwing a ball is considered a bad thing, and throwing two in a row usually gets action out in the bullpen. That’s a risk-averse mentality but a lot of people have it. That can be an advantage to a hitter if she knows how to deal with it.
If you’re not one of the first two hitters in the lineup, you should have a pretty good idea of what and where the pitcher is throwing by the time you come up to the plate. If you start out by looking for that pitch, you’ll give yourself an advantage. It’s like blackjack players counting cards in a casino. You only gain a 2% edge over the house, but if you’re smart about your approach it should be enough to carry out some cash.
The first thing to look at is does the pitcher tend to throw high or low? As a pitching coach I can tell you that pitchers are generally taught to keep the ball low. See if she mostly throws waist-high or below. That’s something that’s easy to tell from the on-deck circle, or even from the dugout. If she always starts out with a low pitch, you can cut the strike zone you’re trying to cover in half. Especially if you see that when she tries to go high she tends to throw a ball.
The next thing to look at is whether she tends to go inside, outside, or middle early in the count. The odds are she’ll be looking to go outside first, because most hitters don’t like that pitch and will let it go. But it’s not a certainty. Watch the catcher’s glove and see where she’s getting the ball. Middle is a gimme, so if you can see that she’s throwing mostly inside or outside you can cut the remaining strike zone in half. Now you’re looking for a pitch in 25% of the zone you were before. If she is consistent with her placement, and you’ve observed correctly, you can be looking for the ball in a particular spot as though she announced the location to you. That’s a nice advantage to have.
Suppose your observation tells you the pitch will likely be low and outside, and you don’t like that pitch. Well, you can let it go, but then your covered strike zone gets bigger. Instead, if outside is what bothers you move in closer to the plate and turn that outside pitch into a de facto down the middle pitch. Forget the plate, just see the ball coming down the pipe and pop it! If she likes to start inside, try backing off the plate to give yourself a little more time to get around on the ball. Don’t forget, you don’t have to start there. You can line yourself up normally, and then as she starts her windup creep in or out a bit. Just be sure to give yourself enough time to get set.
The changeup is another tough one. A good change will tend to freeze a hitter who’s not expecting it. But here’s where observation can help you again. First, look to see if she throws it on the same pitch count, then look to see if every batter sees one. If she’s throwing it to everyone, you may want to plan for it, and simply wait until she throws it to crank it. You can also look to see if she telegraphs it, either by playing with the grip, shortening her arm circle, or slowing down the arm. I watched an opposing pitcher last night give away her speed on all pitchers by her arm speed. If you can recognize the subtleties you’ll have a pretty good clue as to what’s coming.
For movement pitches, try to train yourself to recognize the spin. It requires a lot more focus and concentration than the average fastpitch player gives to her at bats, but it does make a difference. Ask your team’s pitchers how they throw movement pitches, or maybe volunteer to catch for them, so you can get used to seeing the motion and the spin. It definitely helps.
Hitting is still a low-percentage activity. Succeeding 3 out of 10 times makes you an All-Star. But you can help increase your odds by paying attention to what the pitcher is doing, learning her patterns, and narrowing down your happy zone. After all, it’s a lot easier to react to a sudden movement if you know what’s coming.