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Increasing the Hitter's "Dead Red" Zone
"While suspicion remains about his brawn, don't discount [Barry] Bonds' brain in pursuit of Hank Aaron's home run record.
Colorado Rockies' catcher Yorvit Torrealba recalled a conversation with Bonds as the two sat on the bench during a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2003. Bonds predicted pitch-for-pitch how he would be attacked. A few moments later, Bonds was up to bat.
The sequence played out exactly as Bonds had predicted it would, down to the back door slider he lifted to left field for a home run.
"He came back to the dugout and said, 'See I told you,' " Torrealba said. "I couldn't believe it. I have heard of a guy guessing right on one or two pitches. But five? It was amazing.'" (Associated Press, April 30, 2006.)
Why is this "amazing?" Because he has a sound "plan" when he bats? Or, because like all good hitters, he "anticipates" certain pitches in certain counts with less than two strikes? We should spend as much time developing this skill as we do teaching hitting technique. We teach pitchers to size up hitters. Why don't we teach hitters to do the same?
"Hitting is 50% from the neck up" is a commonly-heard hitting maxim that has permeated baseball instruction since its inception. However, hitters who come to our facility for instruction in Denver, both amateur and professional alike, who have no "clue" when they go to the plate, continually amaze me. If "mental hitting" represents so much of the hitting equation, why, then, do we forsake teaching these fundamental mental concepts while spending countless hours attempting to tweak the smallest and most trivial nuances of a hitter's technique?
Mike and Ted
Having mentored under the "World's Greatest Hitter," Ted Williams, for ten years—including three more as a player—gave me insights into the importance of the "game" played between the pitcher and hitter afforded to very few. Sitting next to Ted when he was managing the Washington Senators, I can still recall his excitement "calling" pitches and location BEFORE they were thrown. Hearing him mutter under his breath, "Look for the slider down-and-in now," or, in his own inimitable way, "Boy oh boy! Don't be late here. You're gonna get a (expletive) fastball!" He was a master at this fascinating game and personally reaped the rewards of his vast knowledge. Few have had the rare opportunities to hear first-hand his method of calculating the thought process that goes into the making of the complete hitter.
Williams talked endlessly about the mental game. "Know what pitch McLain's gonna go to tonight in a tight situation, Mike?" Every day. Every game. Before the game. During the game. Before and after each at bat. He talked hitting continuously, helping everyone gain that important edge on the pitcher. Our team batting average went up 70 points that year.
However, Ted rarely spoke about hitting mechanics, focusing primarily on the magical game between the pitcher and hitter. Today, it's interesting to note how few want to reach out for this level of understanding; it has become a "lost art." Hitting is much more than just going to the plate and taking a hack at the ball. This mindset will greatly reduce a hitter's odds of "getting a good pitch to hit."
Most everyone connected in some way to baseball has seen the hitting zone chart in his book, "The Science of Hitting." It depicts his personal hot and cold hitting zones. The chart shows how drastically batting averages fluctuate depending on pitch location, from a .400 batting average in the area right down the middle, belt high, to the low .200s on the low-outside pitch. All players have areas in their hitting zones that are better and/or worse than others. But, it is important for hitters to understand that pitchers "own" the extreme peripheries of the strike zone—IF they can consistently put pitches there. Fortunately, they can't.
Often the size of a hitter's "dead red" area is determined by genetics, athleticism, and the quality of their hitting technique. As an example, Albert Pujols' "dead red" area may be defined by an 8" circle. Another hitter, not having the genetics and/or hitting technique of Pujols, may have a "dead red" area of a 4" circle. Unfortunately, few hitters are blessed with his elite talent, so the majority resign themselves to doing the best they can. Fortunately, there IS a way for these hitters to increase the size of their "dead red" area!
This article delves into this intriguing and fundamental, yet seldom used, area called "mental hitting," and the making of the TOTAL hitter.
Ironically, hitters are exposed to "mental hitting" at very early ages. They quickly figure out they hit better when they know what's coming. However, exposing oneself to something, and effectively using the information, can become two entirely different undertakings.
Let's say that little leaguers are facing a pitcher that day who throws really hard for his age. His fastball is his best pitch and he doesn't throw anything else for strikes. By the second inning, the kids are telling one another to only look for his fastball. Then, "amazingly," by the next inning, the kids begin catching up to his fastball and hitting him all over the lot. We gain knowledge of this at an early age, yet somehow, as players mature, they forget this fundamental skill learned in Little League: TAKING THE "ELEMENT OF SURPRISE" AWAY FROM THE PITCHER CAN YIELD BIG-TIME PRODUCTION.
Hitters run into problems if they face a quality pitcher that happens to be "on" that day and is consistently locating pitches well. Let's say, this pitcher features sinkers and sliders and is routinely keeping his pitches down around the knees, low and outside. The smart hitter, with less than two strikes, will begin to look in this hard-to-hit area. He knows he must let the ball get deeper in his strike zone, so he has more time to look the pitch over. Accordingly, he slows down his pre-swing movements to accommodate the pitch location. In addition, because he is looking in this down-and-away location, he will subconsciously begin repositioning his body to cover this area! This gives him a distinct advantage over the hitter who goes up to the plate looking for every pitch in every location.
Hitters can do this with any pitch and location, but it should only be done WITH LESS THAN TWO STRIKES. When the hitter's "back is to the wall," i.e., when he has two strikes, is when he must truly be reactive and look for a mid-velocity pitch, so as not to be completely fooled.
I was asked at a large gathering of fastpitch softball coaches in Tucson, AZ whether I instruct hitters to "look in and react away" or "look away and react in." I teach neither! NO HITTER CAN EFFECTIVELY COVER BOTH SIDES OF THE PLATE ON ANY ONE PITCH. The ONLY time a hitter must cover both sides of the plate is when he has two strikes. When you instruct hitters to use either of the two above "cues," or simply tell them to "react" to pitches, you are asking them to do just that (cover both sides of the plate). And we all know how much batting success deteriorates when hitters have two strikes (.150). The object of hitting is to consistently hit the ball hard; asking them to hit with two strikes on every pitch is taking the bat right out of their hands.
Hitters are conditioned and exhorted to "get a good pitch to hit," and so they "logically" conclude that this pitch is in their "dead red" area, this being where they hit the ball the hardest. The hitting technique used by the batter greatly influences his "dead red" area. The "dead red" area for rotational hitters is generally one ball in from the middle of the plate, thigh high. For TRUE linear hitters, those that break the vertical axis and come forward, theirs is two balls away from the middle and two balls above the belt.
Mike's definition of the "perfect" swing
As many of you already know, my personal definition of the "perfect" swing is "the adjustment the hitter makes to the pitch he gets." But these rapid fire, "on-the-fly" adjustments do have some important physical limitations.
Good hitting requires lightning-quick responses; the faster the pitch, the less time a hitter has to make these adjustments. Without solid pitch anticipation, these adjustments become compromised and restricted. To help expand these dynamic adjustment limitations, hitters should look for certain pitches and/or locations WITH LESS THAN TWO STRIKES. This allows the hitter to expand his "dead red" zone dramatically and improve his success ratio.
The figure on the left represents a hitter's typical "dead red" zone. He would be able to make ROUTINE on-the-fly swing adjustments, increasing his "dead red" zone approximately 2"- 4", the width of the black line. This increase is defined solely by his mechanics and genetic competence. However, "looking for a pitch and/or location," the figure on the right shows the increase over and above the normal on-the-fly adjustments a hitter can instinctively make. In other words, hitters are limited by ordinary responses, but can enhance this fertile area through anticipation.
Now, the beauty of "thinking along with the pitcher" is that you can not only increase your dead red area, but you can move it as well! No matter where the pitcher locates his pitches, the hitter can always position his body to hit the ball hard through good mechanics and logical thought processes. However, it is important to remember that the mental side of hitting requires supreme discipline. The ingrained thought process must be, "if it's not the pitch and/or area I am expecting, TAKE THE PITCH! Here's why:
Let's say the hitter is anticipating a fastball in. He knows that he must quicken up his pre-swing movements to accommodate hitting the pitch out in front (of his lead knee) as well as making sure he stays inside the ball. In this instance, he would move his dead red area from the middle to the inside-half of the plate. If he doesn't get the pitch/location he is looking for, he should take the pitch because he is in no position to hit it. The same holds true for the hitter looking for a curve ball away. To accommodate the slower pitch and the outside location, he would slow down his pre-swing movements. If he then gets an inside fastball, and still decides to swing, he's going to get jammed. He's in no position to hit that pitch. The same goes for "up" or "down" in the strike zone. If a hitter's looking for a pitch down, he won't hit the pitch up. And vice versa. This is why pitchers move the ball around the strike zone and change speeds and eye levels. They use the element of surprise to get outs.
The hitter has to take the element of surprise away from the pitcher if he is to round out his hitting potential. The game is just too darn fast to depend on lightning-quick reactions, which many are not blessed with. With a little help and common sense, all hitters can slow the game down, level the playing field, and have more fun. And in all my years in baseball, I never knew anyone that hit .150 that had fun….
Since baseball is all about percentages, here is something interesting to ponder. In the course of a "full" major league season (which I consider, today, to be about 140 games), a hitter will get 300 pitches in his "dead red" zone. "All" he has to do is convert 1 in 10 of these mistakes into home runs to make millions of dollars. Now, consider, how many more "dead red" mistakes he will get by anticipating pitches correctly and expanding his optimum hitting area. If it's all about percentages, well, you do the math.
Your calculation should beg a rhetorical answer: Why doesn't every hitter think along with the pitcher? Because very few have played far enough in the game to have learned it. In response to the many inquiries I receive from parents and coaches wanting to know the "hows" and "whys" of these special thought processes, I have written a book, "The Mental Side of Hitting: A Guide to Out-Thinking the Pitcher."
As I said earlier, I have had the good fortune of experiencing first-hand the systematic rationale of the "world's greatest hitter." Now you can, as well! "The Mental Side of Hitting: A Guide to Out-Thinking the Pitcher" can be purchased easily and securely on my website by here. The modest price of $15.95 (plus S&H) is a very modest investment in a hitter's quest for rounding out his hitting potential.
Good luck, continued success, and "get a good pitch to hit!"